The law is not Turing complete

In recent comments on Hacker News, I suggested, with some snark, that the definition of net neutrality is slippery and ad-hoc, and therefore exploitable. I was promptly voted down.

In this case, an ISP in Canada has introduced data caps – a reasonable if undesirable thing – and then went on to make their own video service exempt from counting against these caps.

Shady? Sure. Does it violate the suggested definitions of neutrality? Not really. No packets are being selectively blocked. The ISP is essentially offering free shipping for their own bits. It’s fine not to like it, but it’s not fine to think we can legislate it away.

An essential characteristic of laws is that they are gameable. They are not algorithms against which we can submit test cases and get an objective result. Their definitions are non-deterministic, and are interpreted by humans.

As such, businesses should be expected to exploit them to their own ends. In a highly regulated environment, business advantage comes not from better products, but from greater legal agility. Laws beg the market to game them.

This advantages incumbents more than anything. They can build the legal and technical expertise to influence and exploit the legal system – and this forms a wall that upstarts struggle to climb. It is not a coincidence that the telecom industry is highly regulated, and at the same time uncompetitive.

Thoughtful geeks recognize that complexity and ambiguity are the enemies of secure, reliable code. More moving parts means more unexpected outcomes.

It is natural for us to think that if we put together the correct legal code, that the problem will be fixed.  But the law is not Turing-complete. It is a fountain of exceptions.

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