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Hacking the Law 115

Posted by Soulskill
from the there's-an-arduino-for-that dept.
New submitter sethopia writes "Brooklyn Law School's Incubator and Policy Clinic (BLIP) hosted its first 'Legal Hackathon.' Instead of hacking computer code, attendees — mostly lawyers, law students, coders, and entrepreneurs — used the hacking ethos to devise technologically sophisticated solutions to legal problems. These included attempts to crowdsource mayoral candidacies in New York City and hacking model privacy policies for ISPs."
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Hacking the Law

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  • SVN for law (Score:5, Interesting)

    by dargaud (518470) <slashdot2@gd[ ]aud.net ['arg' in gap]> on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @05:20AM (#39792513) Homepage
    Want to hack law ? Then start by by putting the entire code of law in an SVN-like system. Including proposed laws. With traceability of authors, who voted for them, etc... And an associated wiki for comments. And a complete list of cases that used them. This would be invaluable.
    • by jimshatt (1002452) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @05:28AM (#39792533)
      Can't wait to use 'svn blame'...
    • Re:SVN for law (Score:5, Interesting)

      by ComaVN (325750) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @05:31AM (#39792551)

      Somalia does this, except they use git.

    • Re:SVN for law (Score:5, Insightful)

      by WrecklessSandwich (1000139) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @05:40AM (#39792587)

      Want to hack law ? Then start by by putting the entire code of law in an SVN-like system. Including proposed laws. With traceability of authors, who voted for them, etc... And an associated wiki for comments. And a complete list of cases that used them. This would be invaluable.

      If we're going that route, the author/voting records should link to a database of campaign contributions as well.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Anonymous Coward

        ... and yet no one will care. OH dont get me wrong. Some will. But the vast majority punch their straight ticket D or R and are *very* happy with that choice. Their team 'won'/'lost'.

        They will even go as far as to take on whatever attributes their 'team' has to defend it. Even though if you sit them down and talk about it they really want the other 'team'. A perfect example of this effect is when Howard Stern went to Harlem and asked people what they thought about Obama and used John McCain's talking

        • a lot of media coverage focuses on analyzing who's winning/losing rather than discussing issues. That's probably why.

    • Use git for an Anarcho-Capitalist society!
    • Re:SVN for law (Score:5, Interesting)

      by digitig (1056110) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @05:52AM (#39792621)
      Rather than a version control system, I think it would be more useful to put the law into a requirements management system (after all, what is the law but a set of requirements?) That *might* help lawmakers to see if they are complete (cover what is intended to be covered), consistent and measurable. I don't know of any open source requirements management tools though -- at least, not ones that are still maintained. Perhaps requirements management goes against the hacker ethos (which would reduce the open source effort put into such things, although it wouldn't eliminate it completely of course). If requirements management is against the hacker ethos then I suspect that attempts to hack the law won't work very well.
      • Re:SVN for law (Score:5, Insightful)

        by arglebargle_xiv (2212710) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @07:59AM (#39793103)

        Rather than a version control system, I think it would be more useful to put the law into a requirements management system (after all, what is the law but a set of requirements?) That *might* help lawmakers to see if they are complete (cover what is intended to be covered), consistent and measurable.

        If you try and push this, you'll run into serious real-world acceptance problems. In some cases the law is deliberately obtuse, obscure, open to misinterpretation, and so on. It's this way by design, because two various groups couldn't agree on any wording, or they were under pressure to create a law that violates the laws of physics but managed to word it in such a way that it may not, or it's meant to be interpreted in a way that's more or less the opposite of what it says, or a thousand other reasons. The law is not a Turing machine, and never will be. The last thing most politicians or lawyers would want is a comprehensive overview system of the kind that's being proposed in the above posts.

        • Re:SVN for law (Score:4, Insightful)

          by TheDarkMaster (1292526) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @09:14AM (#39793615)
          Exact. In short, many laws are broken by design.
          • by Anonymous Coward

            In short, many laws are broken by design.

            Name one. Highlight the specific language that is broken and explain why it is broken. We all purport to be rational people on /., right? Let's see the data instead of accepting statements like this as self-evident.

            • Ohhhh... I now have a religious "shadow"?

              Sorry dude. The laws of my country that I could use as example would not make sense to you, much less written in English rather than Portuguese (I'm terrible to write in English and the Google translation sucks to anything more complex). But would be enough to you stop a little to think and analyze the laws of your country, you inevitably would find many examples by yourself.
            • by AK Marc (707885)
              1st 2nd 4th 5th 9th and 10th Amendments. The proof they are broken being the number of Supreme Court cases raised where arguments are about the meaning of them. Well, except the 9th and 10th. Those are simply ignored.
          • by TheSpoom (715771)

            Exact. In short, many laws are broken by design.

            The proper response to this is not to accept the situation as inevitable. The proper response is to try to fix them.

        • by Hatta (162192)

          If you try and push this, you'll run into serious real-world acceptance problems

          Only because it's a good idea.

          The last thing most politicians or lawyers would want is a comprehensive overview system of the kind that's being proposed in the above posts.

          I don't care what lawyers and politicians want. What do the people want? I expect they want a legal system that's consistent and verifiable without spending your lifes savings on an attorney.

          • "I don't care what lawyers and politicians want. What do the people want? I expect they want a legal system that's consistent and verifiable without spending your lifes savings on an attorney."

            Me too. But remember that are lawyers and politicians who make the laws, and their idea is to make you have to spend your savings in lawyers.
            • by Hatta (162192)

              Which is why the first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

              • All:
                God save your majesty!

                Cade:
                I thank you, good people—there shall be no money; all shall eat
                and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery,
                that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

                Dick:
                The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

                Cade:
                Nay, that I mean to do.
                Henry The Sixth, Part 2 Act 4, scene 2, 71–78

                http://www.enotes.com/shakespeare-quotes/lets-kill-all-lawyers [enotes.com]
                I haven't been able to find it in the original Klingon, apologies.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Rather than a version control system, I think it would be more useful to put the law into a requirements management system (after all, what is the law but a set of requirements?)

        That would require the people proposing the laws to admit that the sole purpose is a sincerely dislike of a group of people and the desire to disenfranchise them, which bluntly stated would result in outrage. The pill is far easier to swallow when it's coated in legalese sugar. Dura lex, sed lex.

    • Re:SVN for law (Score:5, Interesting)

      by fph il quozientatore (971015) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @06:44AM (#39792783) Homepage
      In most countries without common law (I can speak first-hand about Italy and Germany), the laws are an unholy mess, impossible to read, search, and interpret; in most cases you have no hope other than asking a consult to a lawyer.
      You want the same people that spent at least 5 years studying this crap and make their living out of it to work actively to simplify it. It is a great idea, but I do not have any hope of seeing this applied.
      Shirky's law applies here as well: "institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution".
      • Re:SVN for law (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Another, completely (812244) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @07:16AM (#39792933)
        But individual lawyers and legal secretaries could make this database their full-time job, in which case it wouldn't be a conflict for them any more. There is already an industry publishing books that list references from the law to cases where it was applied. This would be a natural extension, wouldn't it?
      • "Shirky's law applies here as well: "institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution".

        I'm pretty sure that is Bill Gates' law, actually.

      • by LostOne (51301)

        It's not clear that common law makes the situation any better. It may seem to do so when the relevant legal history is short but when you have many centuries of precedents, laws, and other confusion, it hardly makes things simpler.

      • by AK Marc (707885)
        Common law is worse. You have a simple law, and thousands of court cases modifying that law, with no means to reference the modifying court cases in the law itself, so it's impossible to "know" the law.
        • You have a simple law, and thousands of court cases modifying that law, with no means to reference the modifying court cases in the law itself, so it's impossible to "know" the law.

          Both statute laws and court cases that form binding precedent (as well as some that don't) are published. As are products that link from one to the other. Its not impossible to trace them, but it does take work, but you don't have to do all of it yourself, as there are organizations that expend considerable resources doing this,

          • by AK Marc (707885)

            Its not impossible to trace them, but it does take work, but you don't have to do all of it yourself, as there are organizations that expend considerable resources doing this, and will, for a fee, let you have access to their work product.

            But if LexusNexus didn't make a particular link, or a non-binding precedent would be persuasive and the link isn't drawn (or you use Westlaw and your opposition uses LexusNexus and the information going into court isn't parallel), then you could have issues.

            With a suitable structure, you could try to crowsdsource this work, but I suspect you'd find that the universe of people with both the skills and willingness to be objective needed to do it well and the universe of people with the motivation to do it for free have less overlap than you might want.

            That and non-binding precedents are great to have, even if, well, not binding.

            My "solution" is that if a law is stricken or modified by a ruling, then the written law is ordered to be changed to reflect the finding, with a 30 day delay to allow the legi

    • by Anonymous Coward

      just acquiring a complete listing which could be called "the code of law", translating all laws ever written into a single static document with all modifications made in-place, all "removed by another law" sections having been actually removed, completely ignoring all history and just trying to get a single snapshot of the current state of how things are presently codified, would be more than a lifetime's worth of work.

      Start a kickstarter project for it and go wild.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126)

      Collaborative systems only work when everyone is trying to collaborate, but law is mostly about benefiting yourself and screwing others. Open source software can have different build options and forks for those who strongly disagree with the mainline version, the law cannot (unless you are religious which seems to allow certain opt-outs).

    • Re:SVN for law (Score:4, Interesting)

      by ffflala (793437) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @10:00AM (#39794047)

      Want to hack law ? Then start by by putting the entire code of law in an SVN-like system. Including proposed laws. With traceability of authors, who voted for them, etc... And an associated wiki for comments. And a complete list of cases that used them. This would be invaluable.

      Law seems to be the social equivalent of TFA: most people will base their entire opinions on the summary, and never bother to actually read the thing itself.

      The functional equivalent of an SVN-system already exists and has for decades. What you're describing are very basic components of what is called "legislative history." Bill authors, vote counts, comments made both on the floor of the legislature and in committee: these things (and more) can all be found in the Congressional Record for federal material, and every state legislature has a similar record. Lists of cases that refer to particular laws have been around for well over a century; the various publication types are called annotations, citators, and legal encyclopedias.

      The real problem is that very few people will bother to read what is actually out there. Ask yourself: when was the last time you commented on proposed legislation without actually bothering to read it? When was the last time you commented on a court decision without bothering to read the decision? These things are already available, for free, in most cases online and without any ads.

      • When some of that proposed legislation can be a thousand pages or more? Small-print A4 pages, too. Well, small-print Letter for American laws, I imagine.
      • by sjames (1099)

        It's only fair, we have a number of verified cases where a legislator has admitted to not reading an entire bill before voting for it.

        Perhaps it's time to admit that ignorance of the law isn't just an excuse, it's inevitable.

    • We should be clear about the problem. All this information actually is publicly available: the US Code is versioned by codification year (a new version is codified every six years with interim supplements), and you can find out who voted for or introduced what (including amendments) in the Congressional record. The Code of Federal regulations and the Federal Register serve an analogous function for agency regulations.

      So the problem is not the availability of the information. It is all publicly available fro

      • We should be clear about the problem. All this information actually is publicly available

        This much is true.

        We should be clear about the problem. All this information actually is publicly available: the US Code is versioned by codification year (a new version is codified every six years with interim supplements), and you can find out who voted for or introduced what (including amendments) in the Congressional record. The Code of Federal regulations and the Federal Register serve an analogous function for age

    • Want to hack law ? Then start by by putting the entire code of law in an SVN-like system. Including proposed laws. With traceability of authors, who voted for them, etc... And an associated wiki for comments. And a complete list of cases that used them. This would be invaluable.

      You probably need to start first with 100% codification of statute law, which no jurisdiction in the US that I am aware of has (certainly, the federal government does not), and establishing a fundamental (e.g., Constitutional

    • by sjames (1099)

      There would be a lot of firsts there. Currently there is no existing 'book' that contains the test of all of the laws as amended, much less as understood by the courts or perverted by the DOJ and FBI.

  • Because the question is not if legal problems will be hacked, but when, it is better to just get it over with. This way, with the results out in the open, the law can be improved.

    And hopefully, this also gives lawmakers a chance to form their own opinions rather than being fed opinions from big business lobbyists... although I am not too optimistic about that.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @05:37AM (#39792575)

    computer programmers try to play by the rules: they read the manual and then try to follow what they've learned. Lawyers, meanwhile, are hacking the laws by default. They're always trying to get around following the manual.

    • by Nerdfest (867930)

      ... and the major problem is that the law seem to have been written by the same developers that wrote mush of Adobe's Flash code. It needs a major refactoring to get rid of the holes. (Sorry to pick on Adobe, but I have an RSS feed just for warnings for exploits in their software).

    • Legal arguments, and the law is all about interpretation, nothing is fixed and everything is always open to re-interpretation at a later date

      This is like having code that changes what it does depending on what certain people think it should do currently ....this is not hackable ..

      Or conversely it is what lawyers get paid the big bucks to do all day every day ...

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by swalve (1980968)
      No, it's almost exactly like following code. Lots of logic and ANDs and ORs, MAY or SHALL, etc. The law is only confusing to people who don't know logic.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Lawyers have to play by the rules. That is why they have rules.

      They also try to bend the rules, hack the rules, and find exploits. Lawyers are law nerds, and they hack the law. They also compile manuals that are undecipherable to non-law nerds but make perfect sense to themselves. They write them for themselves, and then they do not understand when others say the whole thing is confusing.

      Sounds oddly familiar.... The only difference between law nerds and computer nerds is that law nerds dress nicer. That an

    • What a load of BS. Most computer programmers most certainly don't try to play by the rules nor do they ever RTFM (hell, the term exists for a reason). They hack something up, change it randomly until it compiles and ship it.

    • by chrismcb (983081)

      computer programmers try to play by the rules:

      RTFM? You are joking right?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Contributions to laws is called legislation, which is part of democracy that was invented about 2500 years ago.

  • by MrKaos (858439) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @06:09AM (#39792671) Journal

    I've read legislation and proposed changes or even proposed that the legislation be dropped altogether. I mainly got interested in the first round of cybercrime laws that proposed making me a criminal for using netcat nessus and the like.

    I set up simple word processing macros that addresses a well written and respectful letter to a list of target politicians (usually all of them). Most of the time I've received some sort of response. It makes it easier for the politician too because they can go straight to the parts of the legislation that are bothersome and move those amendments. If many politicians move the amendments they look insightful to the media, co-operative to their party and hard working to their supporters. Your correspondence, on paper, may make them consider things they hadn't. Also forget email - the retention rate is to low and not portable enough for them to talk to a colleague.

    There are many politicians that don't read the legislation at all and just vote on it because they have been sold an opinion or they have to tow the party line. This is why many of the non-partisan issues never get solved and no party want to give the other party the credit for solving a structural issue. So it remains an issue, if enough people write then they can say "Well I tried to do something".

    If more people do this it would really make a difference to the quality of the laws we get. I hope it catches on.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126)

      There are many politicians that don't read the legislation at all and just vote on it because they have been sold an opinion or they have to tow the party line.

      Sounds a lot like the Slashdot moderation system.

    • by Z8 (1602647)

      Wow, thanks for the thoughtful and constructive post that is a refreshing change from the kneejerk cynicism/fatalism that is the usual Slashdot groupthink.

      I once was on a plane and sat next to a state legislator. I brought up the concept of gerrymandering electoral districts, and argued that it's unfair to moderate voters and creates a less responsive, more divisive political culture. I think he honestly hadn't thought much about these issues before and I hopefully influenced his opinion a bit. Also it'

      • by MrKaos (858439)

        Do you have any specific stories or evidence which let you to believe you made a difference?

        Absolutely, and not just one, but enough time for one.

        My first effort was at a state level. The proposed legislation would impose a censorship regime on all web sites for businesses in our state, a cool $25,000 per business that wanted a web site and the associated departmental time and paperwork to process it before you could publish - lest be liable for severe penalties.

        I know they didn't read email so that is where I had the idea of using word processing macros to generate letters. I decided then that

  • Redundant? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TFAFalcon (1839122) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @06:37AM (#39792755)

    Isn't hacking the law what lawyers do all the time? They study the law, find holes in it and exploit them.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Indeed. IAAL, and one of the big reasons I was first attracted to practicing law was the many similarities between legal thinking and computer programming.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      What the lawyers do is in most cases cracking: They abuse the holes in the law.

    • by swalve (1980968)
      I thought this was going to be an ALEC piece.
  • Polishing a turd (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Hentes (2461350)

    The only way to make the legal system logical would be to throw it out and build another system from scratch.

    • by ibwolf (126465) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @07:27AM (#39792983)

      The only way to make the legal system logical would be to throw it out and build another system from scratch.

      Yes, because - as every software developer know firsthand - when you throw out an old crufty system and develop a brand, sparkling, new one in its place it is always a smooth process that provides tremendous benefits

      </sarcasm>

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      And may I propose that in the new system, the *intent* of the rules should be documented alongside the rules, to prevent the system from being abused.

      Example - instead of stating "Bicycles should be equipped with lights" a rule could state "Bicyclists are hard to see in the dark. To prevent bicyclists from getting hurt or killed due to being poorly visible, bicycles should be equipped with lights ".

      Let's say someone is dressed up in bright, glow-in-the-dark clothing but is riding a bike without light. Or on

      • by dkleinsc (563838)

        Actually, judges do take into account the intent of laws as well as the letter of the law. For instance, if there's a controversy about what a particular word or phrase means in a law, they look up what legislators or the executive said about it when they passed it.

        For instance, with your bicycle law, the law might have been not "bicycles must have lights" but "bicyclists must make reasonable efforts to remain visible to other traffic." And then the question is what "reasonable efforts" constitutes, and why

  • by Datoyminaytah (550912) on Wednesday April 25, 2012 @07:28AM (#39792989)
    Feels as though nobody cares if my case is won So I might as well begin to find a loophole on my own Hacking the law, Hacking the law...
  • One day i can finally say "I fought the law, and the law lost"
  • It is built in to the theory behind the GPL.

    Attorneys thought he was absolutely crazy. And some still do.

    But it worked.

    Which is why some masters of thought control are trying to undermine it.

  • Check out www.calguns.net for a description of a gun law hack in California.

    Want to own an AR-15 series rifle in California? You can, thanks to the work of some online collaboration and combination of laws.

    In a nutshell, the definition of 'detachable magazine' combined with the poorly written assault weapons law, some case law and testimony from the California Dept of Justice Firearms folks resulted in a movement for building AR series rifles legally in California with all the goodies like pistol grips, et

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