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Why SOPA Is Dangerous (and why you want programmers to read law)
This week's really interesting article from my LinkedIn slush pile is this one from Mashable. Everyone's been making a huge deal about the SOPA bill -- the Internet has been a mix of sites that blacked themselves out voluntarily, and those full of soundbites about the bill. This article is a fine contrast to that: the author actually dissects the bill, and explains why the language is broad enough to do enormous damage. The sponsors of SOPA and PIPA are back-pedaling furiously (and I'm pleasantly amused that *all* of the current presidential candidates have come out against the bills as currently written), but it's still worth a read if you want to understand the issues here.

The interesting side-note, though, is that the article isn't written by a lawyer, but by a programmer. That's not actually surprising. Good programmers are practiced in reading eye-glazing bodies of text, and understand what they really mean: not what was intended, not what they *say* that they do, but actually reading carefully, following the logic and figuring out what the results are. It's one of the least fun parts of the job, but is all too often necessary. (One sign of a really experienced programmer is the ability to catch many bugs simply by reading the code, never having to run it.)

And in many ways, reading contracts and law is similar. Far from identical, mind: they have their own distinct jargons, and are often quite intentionally ambiguous, and you have to understand that going in. But those programmer skills are still helpful in separating what someone *claims* is written down from what it really says. In the case of SOPA, that's crucial. The claims about the law are semi-benign, and the sponsors might even believe that's what they've written. But in fact, the law as written is much broader, more ambiguous and more dangerous than those claims -- as the article points out, the result is that the law criminalizes an enormous amount of legitimate Internet activity, and makes it all but impossible to run most websites safely.

So sometimes, it's not a bad idea to have a programmer look through your legal documents. Not just any programmer -- it requires one who has the skill and experience to read carefully, in great detail, understanding what is said and what it implies. And most programmers will not thank you for it. (Most legal documents are horrible spaghetti compared with decent code.) But sometimes, it's helpful...

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Looking at the wrong things

Good point. I often feel like people focus on the wrong things:

The problem's not over-regulation or under-regulation, it's good vrs bad regulation.

The size of government isn't important--the competence of government is.

It's not the source of negative political ads nor the money spent that's the problem; it's their misleading lack of truthfulness.

It's not the reason for the law that's the problem (usually); it's whether the law works to solve the problem. Neither SOPA nor PIPA solve the pirate problem; instead, they create new problems.

Absolutely. This is one of my most important technical skills, and why I pushed my way into SCA laws committees when applicable and, more recently, the group tasked with rewriting my congregation's bylaws. In both contexts people assumed I was a lawyer. (Of course I cleared that up, especially in the latter case where real-world law comes into play.)

And yes, I find plenty of bugs just by reading the code, and not a few just by reading the interface spec. ("If you're committing to this contract then you probably implemented it this way, but if you did that you would run into such-and-such problem. Did you?")

From my understanding, the lobbyists had a large hand in crafting this legislation too. As often as the law of unintended consequences comes up in legislation written by legislators, how much more must it come up in legislation written by those unpracticed in legislating and driven by selective interests and perspectives?

I've long railed against laws for which its supporters say it's to do X.
But on closer reading it could also do Y.
The Supporters universally say "It's not meant for that!"

If so, then make it say "only for X"!

My primary example: Look closely at some of the federal crime stats and you'd be amazed at the number of folks charged for forms of terrorism under the Patriot act. A large number of drug and gang arrests are charged under the PA, because the money involved might possibly finally end up in terrorist hands.

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