Code Is Law and Modes of Coercion

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Syed Omer Husain, Alex Franklin & Dirk Roep:

“Code is law”, another way of referring to “governance by technologies”, is the idea that software coding can be understood as a form of law. Campbell-Verduyn (2017) explains that certain design features of technologies themselves can “reframe, redefine, and reconstitute the mundane activities of the social actors and social process under-pinning global governance” (Campbell-Verduyn 2017, p. 8). Specific architectures of general-purpose technologies, as described earlier, can be understood as “arrangements of power” (DeNardis 2012, p. 721) which weigh heavily on the conditions of possibility for socio-economic interactions. As Benkler states, the Internet has been coded to allow certain “affordances and constraints” (Benkler 2011, p. 722) around values which we may not be able to identify at first. Building on this idea, Filippi and Hassan (2018) assert that “code has progressively established itself as the predominant way to regulate the behavior of Internet users”. Accordingly, with the advent of blockchain and associated smart contracts, code is assuming such a strong role, that it is possible to identify a shift from ‘code is law’ (code has the effect of law) to ‘law is code’ (law is actively being defined as code) (De Filippi and Hassan 2016).

Contextualizing this shift in terms of political imagination, there is a stark difference in the way which socio-economic interactions will be regulated. The current legal system is enforced “ex-post” (after the event) through state intervention, while in technological systems, it is in-built in the system, and, hence, is enforced “ex ante” (before the event) through code (De Filippi and Hassan 2016). This implies that the designers, owners, and controllers of the system can choose to structurally enable and disable certain types of socio-economic interactions, political action, and processes on their technical systems. Through empirically scanning blockchain projects, decentralization evangelists, and techno-utopians from both the radical and incorporative camps, we identified their shared claim of the possibility to reduce the role of coercive institutions, such as the state and other regulatory bodies, by pre-defining what is and is not allowed (Atzori 2015). Correspondingly, the burgeoning reliance on technology in this regard, signals the urgency of questioning and analyzing the in-built ethical-legal and political features of projects. If we understand that blockchain projects are reducing certain traditionally coercive institutions, we must ask which new forms of coercion emerge within blockchain governance systems—both internally and externally. According to Myers, “reproducing the coercive role of the state in a decentralized yet less constrained manner does not create a more just society” (Myers 2017, p. 246); rather, the same political ideals of libertarian democracy will be implemented in a new and debatably more coercive form.

We are already witnessing government-led pilots experimenting with political rule by algorithm (Calzada 2018). China’s social credit system is a national reputation system which aims to standardize the assessment of citizens’ and businesses’ reputations and grant rewards. Popularly referenced to TV show Black Mirror (Jeferson 2018), it is being described in the media as a politically dystopic shift and another form of surveillance capitalism (Cinnamon 2017; Chorzempa et al. 2018). Similarly, through our research, we ascertained that many blockchain projects prefiguratively implement politicized ideas of incentives to instill certain types of behavior. For instance, the aforementioned example of Colu (Joey 2018) and community cryptocurrencies encourage and incentivizes people to take part in the local economy (Birch 2015; Tarasiewicz and Newman 2015). The imaginaries of such a system share some similarities with the crypto-commonists, circular economy, and politics of local consumption (Mougayar 2016; Circle Economy 2018). There are other exploratory ideas of creating a Co-op Coin which would embody principles of the collaborative economy and use organizational models of cooperatives (Sylvester-Bradley 2018). Design features are highly politicized and have profound implications on the types of activity that can be carried out by civil society. With each project, we must question which values are encoded in the system, who controls it, which organizational structure is present to form consensus, and what are the political visions of the code." (

More information

Table 1: Typology of blockchain imaginaries,