Book Review: Lessig’s Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace

January 14, 2002

Reviewed By: Kimberly Hall

Lawrence Lessig’s

book, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (1999) reveals the regulability of the

Internet and the online experience. With stories and engaging examples, Lessig

details how the Internet is regulable through architecture, code, law and social

influences while emphasizing that regulability is critical to maximize the Internet’s

benefits. This is pertinent to policymakers, educators and others who have a stake

in shaping the Internet to be a productive, informative common space where users

feel motivated to explore and communicate. In formal educational contexts of the

Internet, such as in an online class, the issues and strategies Lessig discusses

can be applied to optimize the learning process. Code identifies and investigates

forces that shape the culture of an online space.

Code is organized

in four parts. "Regulability," "Code and Other Regulators,"

"Applications" and "Responses" construct the frame that

demonstrates how the Internet is regulable. In "Regulability," Lessig

lays his groundwork; he explains that the Internet is made up of architecture

and code written by software developers. He compares code to law. Code restricts

what users can do on the Internet, as law does in real space. Architecture is

compared to the US Constitution, a general framework for behavior and functioning.

Part 2 expands

this argument. In real space certain factors regulate our behavior; these include

social norms, the law, the market and the physical architecture of our community.

This structure also exists in cyberspace, but through different means. The culture

of a chat room, the perceived level of privacy and the mask of an online identity

influences people’s behavior and contributes to the shaping of cyberspace.

In Part 3, "Applications,"

Lessig argues that non-regulation puts individual rights such as privacy, the

fair use of intellectual property, and free speech at stake. With historical

references, he chronicles how protection of these rights has fluctuated via

new technologies, court cases, and the law. Lessig argues that "the lesson

of the future will be that copyright is protected far too well" (p. 127),

which nullifies the Fair Use Limitation of Copyright Law. He proceeds to discuss

the invasion of privacy with the proliferation of online marketing, "others

now have the right to collect data about your public behavior and do with it

what it suits them to do" (p. 151). Lessig continues to emphasize that

before we decide what to regulate, we have to carefully translate constitutional

rights and laws from real space to cyberspace. For example, privacy is protected

by the Fourth Amendment, and this protection should regulate how new means of

communication are used. This right to privacy has been applied to the telephone

but not yet to e-mail (pp. 111-118).

Finally, Part 4,

"Responses," focuses on the means we have to influence regulation

under our political and social structure. Lessig warns if government chooses

not to regulate, then the Internet will regulate itself via organizations and

actors such as businesses and programmers. This is pertinent to educational

leaders and policymakers who want to ensure that the Internet is shaped to offer

valuable educational resources and productive environments to students and the

general public.

Of particular interest

to teachers and distance educators is the account of the IBEX incident in Lessig’s

law class. The incident exemplifies that although the Internet allows for more

freedom of speech, promotes cohesion and deeper class discussion, there are

occasions when inappropriate speech can be destructive. IBEX, an anonymous student

identity, displayed "vicious" behavior that adversely affected the

thriving atmosphere in the class online forum (pp. 79-82). The online experience

materialized in the physical classroom, "people felt the creature in the

room…this was their classmate, hiding behind a smile, or a joke, in real

space, but vicious in cyberspace" (p. 82). With this example, Lessig clearly

conveys the importance of vigilance and structure appropriate to the goals of

an online forum and demonstrates how destructive online behavior can affect

day-to-day experiences offline.

All in all, Code

offers critical insight on the potential for society to shape the Internet as

well as the Internet’s impact on society. Stakeholders of online learning can

gain insight into how courses, programs and information can be shaped to attain

a productive learning experience in the class and beyond where students search

the World Wide Web, venture into chat rooms and consume online products and

services. Most notably, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace emphasizes that we

all have a stake in shaping online space.


Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace on



is Senior Instructional Designer at Emerson College in Boston, MA. She is a

Ph.D. candidate in Law, Policy and Society at Northeastern University and received

a Master of Arts in Educational Technology and an M.A. in History at San Diego

State University. She has taught English as a Second Language at the university

level and worked with faculty and educational professionals in designing online

instruction at San Diego State University, the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine,

the National Park Service, BBN/GTE Internetworking and at Northeastern University.

She is currently researching women’s experiences as online distance learners.