Five minute legislation - David Weinberger recently cautioned that, when it comes to the Web, "we should be careful of making bad, hasty decisions." I accepted that idea right away. Congress should just leave the Web alone and not pass any laws until we all have a better idea of how it will work. But then I started thinking. Does Congress do a better job when it takes a lot of time to analyze a social problem? Or does that just lead to more complicated solutions? Things move quickly on the Web, so maybe the legislation should be passed hastily --with very little thought. Is there any precedent for this sort of wild, out-of-the-box approach? Absolutely.
Father Guido Sarducci, a brashly innovative thinker, conceived of something called The Five Minute University. He postulated that, since most of what one learns during college is eventually forgotten, courses should be reduced to key points that can be taught quickly. For example, a business course is basically about "buying stuff and selling it for more." Economics is just "supply and demand." Using this approach, the entire four-year curriculum could be trimmed down to five minutes. Actually, Sarducci acknowledged that, "about a minute-and-a-half-a would-a be taken up inna registration." You've got to allow time for bureaucracy.
I think this principle could work in Congress. The current system produces many convoluted laws that clearly don't work and cause enormous confusion, so how much worse could it be if the congressional term only lasted five minutes? If nothing else, the official record of the proceedings would be short, and easy to read. Here's a sample of a session dedicated to the Internet -
Digital Rights Management - Prominent companies want this. Let's give it to them. Truth is, after a while users will revolt and the companies will find that it isn't worth the hassle. Until then, we need a law so people feel like we did something. The law will say a bunch of complicated things that no one can figure out. It will be challenged, and will work its way through the over-burdened court system until the the marketplace revolts.
Hyperlinking - declare it a scarce public resource and auction off linking rights to the highest bidder. The strategy here is to tax corporate stupidity. Obviously, people are going to link as they please, and they aren't going to pay anyone for the right to do it. But some people would believe the government could do this, and would therefore bid for the rights. By making business people bid against one another for a useless right you increase the financial burden on a companies that are stupid, and therefore likely to go bankrupt anyway -- and you put money in the public coffers. This is sound economic policy.
Library filtering & kids' access to porn - Very controversial stuff. Controversial issues are always challenged on constitutional grounds anyway so let's not worry too much about a sensible solution. Try to make as many people happy as you can. Pass a law that says if anyone uses a computer to look at nudity of any kind they pay large fines, which --once collected-- are distributed to the RIAA or the Motion Picture Association. That will make the religious fundamentalists happy and help subsidize our foundering entertainment industry. Eventually the Supreme Court will rule the law is laughably unconstitutional, but by then the kids will be grown up. And hopefully they will have learned how to keep their kids from seeing porn using a low-tech method: i.e., being a watchful parent.
P2P hacking - Let the companies do it, what the hell. Microsoft's programmers are smart. What could go wrong? Well, okay something might go wrong. So create an agency that can add some regulations along the way. Why? Let's say the hacking code gets out of control, creates network congestion, and results in huge delays in Internet traffic. People will complain about the stupid law. But you've got government officials with a vested interest in defending it, even if it obviously impedes commerce and causes chaos. Just like the Transportation Security Agency.
Obviously, there other important issues --copyright term extensions, broadcast flags, and so on-- but you can't tackle everything at once. Plus, you have to leave at least a minute and half for the lobbyists.
What is legal truth? - The University of Pittsburgh Law School has an automated bot-assistant named Alex, which can answer your legal questions. I asked Alex to help me find truth in the law, and got the following response:
"I can connect you to an overview of insurance law."
I thought I was in the wrong profession, but it turns out I just have to switch practice areas.
How can we make law better? - Talking to Dave yesterday got me thinking; something he said made me aware of a fundamental problem with laws. Lawyers tend to solve all social problems through the use of laws. It's the old "when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail" scenario. Sadly, ordinary people are also starting rely heavily on laws, when ordinary common sense would do just fine. And Congress? Well let's just say that the place is littered with hammers.
So I'm working on a model of changing things in Congress that will help. I'm pretty close to having something I can share with everyone. It will have to be short because I'm not in the whole Kantian tome-writing, super-duper exegisis thing. I've got attention deficit disorder, and I suspect that some of you do too. So it will be short, pithy, and true. The "truth" is the hard part. I'm finding that "truth" requires a mix of strange ingredients. And you've got to get the right proportions with those ingredients. I'm sure I won't get it right, but at least I can say I tried. Hope to have something for you soon.