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CodeX: The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics

Background

We live in a complex regulatory environment; subject to a turbulent conflux of legal regimes – regimes often at cross purposes to both themselves and our own best interests. The instant cataract of public laws and private rules faced by a given person at a given moment – coded by different bodies, at different times, for different purposes – predictably results in an avoidable surfeit of chaos, non-compliance, and disenchantment with the legal system generally. This latter is a frustration born of both uncertainty and powerlessness.

A. Information Problems

"It is one of the greatest anomalies of modern times that the law, which exists as a public guide to conduct, has become such a recondite mystery that it is incomprehensible to the public and scarcely intelligible to its own votaries."

—Lee Loevinger, 1949

The law is not manifest. For most, the law is byzantine and ethereal; concrete only in the negative. Laws concretized only after their breach violate common sense, economic logic, and at least the spirit of due process. Yet, in practice, information problems limit our constitutional right to access the laws which both empower and bind us. The cost of legal counsel frequently exceeds the perceived benefit thereof, particularly as to counseling for individuals and small entities. This problem also extends to larger entities. For example, the marginal legal cost of certain types of transactions proscribes entire sectors of commerce. Lastly, the opaqueness of legal information increases both the incidence and cost of litigation, as resulting ambiguities allow disputing parties to exaggerate the strength of their own legal positions, as well as cloud interpretation of acts and relationships.

B. Collective Action Problems

A collective action problem may be described as a social phenomenon where large groups of individuals, with atomized rights and a limited ability to communicate with one another, lose out to focused interest groups which have captured governmental processes, or which have asymmetric financial power to retain legal advocates. By definition, this condition leads to net social inefficiencies. One example is the asymmetry between a large corporate online licensor and its licensees, where the value of an alternate license term to the licensees, as a group, vastly exceeds the value of the offered term, to the licensor; but the net socially efficient contract will never be created because (a) the licensees are atomized and (b) they do not know the value of the alternate legal term.

Solubility

Neither of the above problems is typically insoluble, particularly given the advent of the Internet and advanced software design. Advanced software tools may help non-experts navigate complex systems. New data protocols may enable such expert systems to work. The Internet may facilitate coordination amongst atomized individuals and entities, as well as the sharing of legal costs.

While much “Information Age” scholarship has focused on how to regulate the Internet, very little has been directed towards how this medium can be used to make regulation itself more efficient. Albeit of a complex type, legal code itself is information. For this reason, the tectonic societal changes characterized as “Information Age” shifts present unprecedented opportunities to make legal compliance easier, particularly as to activities which are themselves digitally mediated. People routinely use the Internet to buy products, ship them, book travel, register with government agencies, and so forth. In some cases, these activities are managed by web services with the data and computational resources necessary to conform such activities to appropriate regulations.

Relatedly, there has been significant progress in semantic web technology – next generation web technology based on the representation, processing, and use of semantically structured data. In general, we are seeing a move from free-form text documents to databases and logic bases. In the business world, we are seeing the wholesale automation of multi-organizational business services. Commensurate advances are also possible with respect to legal compliance and social administration generally.

Computational law is an innovative approach to legal informatics stemming from many of the advances described above. Through Computational Law, regulations may be formally represented as behavioral constraints operating in explicitly modeled, dynamic environments. Even modest success in this area will enable superior technologies for: (i) finding, aggregating, and disseminating regulatory information; (ii) decision-making, compliance checking, and ex ante regulatory enforcement; and (iii) analyzing and synthesizing regulations. A strength of the Computational Law approach is its core recognition of ambiguity and inconsistency in the law. By attempting to isolate elements of the law which are standardizable, to differentiate between routine procedures and decision points requiring professional analysis, CodeX seeks to foment greater efficiency in both. Where, for example, national legal treatises may sometimes overgeneralize, and gloss over jurisdictional variation, Computational Law seeks the opposite result: Leveraging Internet architectures and advanced data protocols to manifest the most substantively and jurisidictionally specific code possible. Where much scholarship pursues necessarily oversimplified models of immensely complex social interactions, our goal is often the inverse: To architect ideal models which – through public or private ratification – constitute the legal framework of their respective users.

CodeX seeks to architect online legal environments which, by their structure, reduce the incidence of legal and factual ambiguity, and thus allow for legal empowerment of ordinary citizens. Intelligent digital architectures – self-enforcing manifest legal controls – may exhibit fewer of the information and collective action problems outlined above.