Media | Language/Structure

Over the last year I'd learned through my work on compliance software about the Global Rules Information Database (now organized under the Object Management Group's Governance Risk & Compliance Roundtable). Robin Basham, a recognized expert in the compliance field who has worked on it, explained it as such: any company can quickly determine, through open standards, what regulations and codes apply for doing any sort of business in any part of the world. Here's a thought: what if this applied to laws governing personal behavior?

These are largely uniform in the United States, but surely not around the world. Even in the United States, there are crucial variations among laws, ordnances, rules & regulations based on jurisdiction. I'll call this CodeZoner for now (as each "zone" may have its own "codes").

Consider one of the most inconsistently areas of the law across the nation: photography in apparently public spaces. A subway system or state highway is one such place where different laws applying in different jurisdiction (one can add sporting events, concert events, museums to this list, but those are usually ticketed, and the rules regarding photography and recordings are generally indicated on the tickets) . These are often not set by legislation, but are typically decisions by transit agencies on their own. The NYCsubway website has done yeoman's work collating the rules & regulations from various public transit agencies in the U.S. on their page Photography on Transit Systems. But it takes a patient searcher to find– searching a popular search engine for is photography allowed on subway brings up this page at #16.

The common libertarian impulse on the Internet generally scoffs at these laws. I happen to think that laws regarding photography in public places err too much on the side of paranoia, but my communitarian impulse tells me that we live in a society of laws, and if a municipality or government agency sets a law, it is to be followed, unless a case for civil disobedience can be made. Perhaps if more people knew that laws applied, they could then petition for change at the appropriate time. In fact, it is very possible that due to the active existence of the NYCSubway website– whereby an engaged citizen can pressure a public agency, and point to the policies of other agencies– the policies of Boston's MBTA and New Jersey Transit have been liberalized over the last couple of years (the archives reveal this fascinating history).

Still, there always seem to be more public spaces where public photography is constricted. Dan Gillmor passes along a news story that a Syracuse University graduate student named Mariam Jukaku was taking photographs around a VA medical center, whereupon she was questioned by hospital security officers and her pictures were erased; she suspects it may have been because she was wearing a headscarf.

Gordon Sclar, a medical center spokesman, said security officers were following hospital policy that restricts photographs on hospital property. He said Jukaku was between the sidewalk and the parking lot. She said she stayed on the sidewalk.

I suppose that a libertarian impulse might object to a technology which serves a manifest reminder of the state's power. But, one has to remember, that in the United States or any democratic, the law is intended to serve both ways. In theory, any law governing seemingly public photography should be written to protect the rights of citizens from having their media erased without due process. (In 2004, a federal marshal forced two professional reporters erase their audiotape recordings– they were only listening to a talk at a local high school by Justice Antonin Scalia extolling the Constitution. This received a little bit of media attention).

A number of of public figures brandish the fact that they carry around a "pocket Constitution." But that's mere symbolism. Something  as seemingly solid as "freedom of speech" has been subject to a menagerie of interpretation and legislation of the last two centures. Law enforcement and private security officers don't follow the Constitution on every thing they do; they follow the rules and regulations (which normally reflect the Constitution) that apply to a jurisdiction and a behavior. What can traditionally only be found in a book of rules, and only be understood through lengthy education, can now be transmitted to the regular citizen via mobile phone.

Will this be done? By whom? It may well develop in an authoritarian nation like China or Singapore, which as I understand are more interested in using technologies as enablers of control, rather than freedom.

Certainly one should worry also about Lawrence Lessig's nightmare scenario from his book Code, where he suggests that it is well possible for technology companies to build controls into software/hardware, and possible for a sovereign state to pass laws mandating that only complying technologies. For example, society could mandate that each digital camera determine its GPS coordinates (it may well happen anyways, it is already that way in phones); and furthermore, the "nightmare extension" is that a camera couldn't even be used in certain places. What he describes is an environment where the code doesn't merely influence behavior, it forces it.

This happens today– a convicted drunk driver may be required to operate only cars that have breathalyzers built-in (the driver has to prove that he is sober before the car can start). The camera turn-off is far less likely.

Still, one must at the same time consider the civil libertarian benefits. You're minding your own business, taking pictures of what you think is a public place, and a security officer comes up and barks out. You press a button on your phone to get the applicable regulations (which, naturally, you've checked beforehand). "I know my rights," you say, whipping out your phone and holding up the screen for the officer. "You should, too."

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    Participation is key to maintaining liberties GeneKoo Sep 13 ’07 10:28PM