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posted by martyb on Thursday June 05 2014, @06:50PM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]
from the while-(true)-{spawn()} dept.

Samir Chopra at The Nation proposes that we treat algorithms as agents of the companies that deploy them. In effect, treat computer programs as people, too.

From the article:

I suggest we fit artificial agents like smart programs into a specific area of law, one a little different from that which makes corporations people, but in a similar spirit of rational regulation. We should consider programs to be legal agents--capable of information and knowledge acquisition like humans--of their corporate or governmental principals. The Google defense--your privacy was not violated because humans didn't read your e-mail--would be especially untenable if Google's and NSA's programs were regarded as their legal agents: by agency law and its central doctrine of respondeat superior (let the master answer), their agents' activities and knowledge would become those of their legal principal, and could not be disowned; the artificial automation shield between the government (the principal) and the agent (the program) would be removed.

If such a position were adopted, there could be a significant impact on the permissibility of scanning of emails for targeted advertisements or on ISP's ability to perform deep packet inspection.

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Asking Permission: Running piWik To Get An Idea About Our Usage 83 comments
So, right now, I'm currently sitting with mrcoolbp and martyb in meatspace working out the finer points of incorporation, and the future needs of SoylentNews. One thing that has come up is we really don't have a great idea of our actual usage numbers are. Slashcode has decent internal numbers which give us some rough numbers, but they're only really valid for logged-in users (which bypass the varnish cache), and we're not 100% sure they're accurate anyway. According to slash, we're averaging approximately 50-60k page views per day (I've included the statistics email below), but it doesn't help us in knowing what AC usage look like. According to varnish, we average roughly 400-500k connections per day, but that number is inflated since we're not using keep-alive or HTTP pipelining as of yet.

Furthermore, since we don't log IP addresses in access.log, and IP's run through Slash are turned into IPIDs, its hard to get an idea of where our userbase is (the general feeling is the vast majority of us are based in the United States, but even then, that's more because our peak hours of traffic are between 4 and 10 PM EST). We've wanted to get a better idea of what our traffic and userbase are, so we're asking permission from the community to install piWik, and embed its javascript tag in the footer of each page, which will give us a wide berth of solid information to work from.
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  • (Score: 2) by mhajicek on Thursday June 05 2014, @06:53PM

    by mhajicek (51) on Thursday June 05 2014, @06:53PM (#51841)

    Nuff said.

    --
    The spacelike surfaces of time foliations can have a cusp at the surface of discontinuity. - P. Hajicek
  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by d on Thursday June 05 2014, @06:55PM

    by d (523) on Thursday June 05 2014, @06:55PM (#51843)

    Surprisingly (since the title is misleading), this seems to make sense for me. The point, though, is to keep in mind who's responsible for launching the program. It's the NSA people should go to jail for wiretapping, not their programs.

    • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:27PM

      by bob_super (1357) on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:27PM (#51860)

      I demand Chainsaw Personhood, so that it can be blamed when I go on a rampage.

      Then again, many Americans essentially consider their guns as their children...

      • (Score: 2) by buswolley on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:38PM

        by buswolley (848) on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:38PM (#51866)

        I think you have missed the point. What you are (jokingly) advocating is the status quo, not what the article advocates.

        --
        subicular junctures
        • (Score: 1) by Angry Jesus on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:40PM

          by Angry Jesus (182) on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:40PM (#51868)

          I think this article is really a test to determine who just reads the headlines.

        • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:39PM

          by bob_super (1357) on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:39PM (#51897)

          I am merely pointing out that in most cases, the person using a tool to commit a crime is clearly the one who gets blamed.
          When the NSA programs sort your private life into a database, somehow they get to argue that "nothing happened" until a human queries the result, because nobody is "using" the tool or something.
          Which is BS. It's not a virus or a defect, someone intentionally started the program, knowing what it does. That person should be responsible, along with his hierarchy.

          • (Score: 2) by buswolley on Thursday June 05 2014, @10:42PM

            by buswolley (848) on Thursday June 05 2014, @10:42PM (#51945)

            And the article is essentially advocating your position.

            --
            subicular junctures
          • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 06 2014, @03:30AM

            by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 06 2014, @03:30AM (#52046)

            Yes, which as you were told is the entire point of TFA. That the people writing the programs should be held accountable for what the programs do. Not get to claim that they had no knowledge because of the lack of a human interaction.

            • (Score: 2) by monster on Friday June 06 2014, @02:24PM

              by monster (1260) on Friday June 06 2014, @02:24PM (#52254) Journal

              Not really the people writing the program, but the people seeting it up for nefarious purposes, IMHO.

              A program is a tool. Unless there is a clear purpose for crime in its creation, the people responsible for its behaviour should be those that set it up in a specific, criminal setup (think guns, robbers and banks. You don't need to set "gun personhood" to find the robbers guilty. Same here)

        • (Score: 1) by meisterister on Friday June 06 2014, @12:22AM

          by meisterister (949) on Friday June 06 2014, @12:22AM (#51982) Journal

          I think that this brings up an interesting point. IANAL, but wouldn't he be able to accomplish his intended goal by incorporating the chainsaw?

          --
          (May or may not have been) Posted from my K6-2, Athlon XP, or Pentium I/II/III.
      • (Score: 2) by jimshatt on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:39PM

        by jimshatt (978) on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:39PM (#51867) Journal
        I guess you misunderstood. In the case of Chainsaw Personhood this would mean that the chainsaw would become a legal agent of you, and thus your legal responsibility.
      • (Score: 2) by frojack on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:32PM

        by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:32PM (#51893) Journal

        Rampage with a Chainsaw?

        Its mainstream in some parts... [thebiglead.com]

        --
        No, you are mistaken. I've always had this sig.
    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Sir Garlon on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:46PM

      by Sir Garlon (1264) on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:46PM (#51870)

      Actually, the headline is so stupid it's offensive. TFS is about institutions being held accountable what their software does, the same as they are accountable for what their human employees do. This makes a lot of sense to me because those programs were written by people to accomplish a task. If you think about it for five seconds, programming a computer to do the task should not make the employee, and hence the institution, less accountable than if said employee had done the task by hand.

      It's not that corporations are people. It's that they are actors who can participate in the legal system -- file suit, be sued, be punished for breaking criminal law. They are called "legal persons" and this principle is necessary to any complex society: it goes back at least as far as ancient Rome. (Increasingly corporations are trying to claim the legal rights of humans to go along with their legal obligations, and that is new and highly dangerous in my opinion. TFA touches on this but the author is clearly a fascist sympathizer, I mean, the author seems to disagree with me on that point.)

      Likewise, this suggestion is not that computer programs should "people," it's that companies should be liable for the actions of their software, the same as they were liable for the actions of their file clerks and bean-counters before computers were a thing. The company would be accountable for what its software does, the same as it's accountable for what its employees do in meat space. It's actually the opposite case -- that the company is NOT responsible if its software commits a tort or breaks a law -- that is radical and incomprehensible.

      If accepted, this proposal would finally catch up to the reality that the DISCLAIMER OF ALL LIABILITY AND WARRANTY for software is absolute bullshit in the 21st century. If this proposal does not happen, then companies will pretty soon catch on to the idea that taking humans out of the loop is a great way to minimize their liability and let them get away with screwing the public. In fact, I suspect tech companies already realize this.

      Unfortunately this is just some columnist expressing a good idea, not an actual policy proposal from someone who can create change in the legal system.

      IANAL and if I were I should be disbarred for sounding off in this manner. :-)

      --
      [Sir Garlon] is the marvellest knight that is now living, for he destroyeth many good knights, for he goeth invisible.
      • (Score: 2) by frojack on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:43PM

        by frojack (1554) Subscriber Badge on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:43PM (#51900) Journal

        If accepted, this proposal would finally catch up to the reality that the DISCLAIMER OF ALL LIABILITY AND WARRANTY for software is absolute

        And it would simultaneously kill of Opensource free software.
        Today, we accept liability when we install a piece of software. We had it last, and we made the choice.
        The developer is absolved, except where you can prove it did something sneaky or intentionally illegal.

        Fast forward to your universe.
        Why in gods name would anyone release any program if they had to remain liable for any depraved use of same?
        Why would anyone manufacture a knife, or the aforementioned chainsaw?

        At first glance, using the examples in TFS, this seems initially reasonable. But carried to execution it becomes
        ridiculous.

        We all know the bargain we made with Google when we signed up for Gmail.

        --
        No, you are mistaken. I've always had this sig.
        • (Score: 2) by buswolley on Thursday June 05 2014, @10:47PM

          by buswolley (848) on Thursday June 05 2014, @10:47PM (#51946)

          Well. By installing the program, the program is now your agent...unless the seller of the software did not disclose all processes therein....Actually, this should PUSH open source, as companies might find that they are liable unless disclosure of the software is made to the buyer.

          --
          subicular junctures
          • (Score: 2) by Sir Garlon on Friday June 06 2014, @11:34AM

            by Sir Garlon (1264) on Friday June 06 2014, @11:34AM (#52167)

            For what it's worth, my intent was to condemn the veil of secrecy surrounding proprietary software: on one hand the vendor knows this is going to be used as the back-end for emergency dispatch or whatever, and then disavows that it's his problem if it fails to deliver any messages to the ambulances. The buyer would be liable for using dud software, same as if they had hired a human phone operator who left her post and was out having a cigarette when the emergency call came in. I think there is no way someone under those circumstances a company would buy software that they can't validate, and there is also no way they would simultaneously accept all liability for its safe operation. So where I think the market would go is, either you adopt open-source software and have to test and validate it in-house, or you buy proprietary software and pay through the nose for the developer to indemnify you.

            --
            [Sir Garlon] is the marvellest knight that is now living, for he destroyeth many good knights, for he goeth invisible.
      • (Score: 1) by dw861 on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:52PM

        by dw861 (1561) Subscriber Badge on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:52PM (#51906) Journal

        It's not that corporations are people. It's that they are actors who can participate in the legal system -- file suit, be sued, be punished for breaking criminal law. They are called "legal persons" and this principle is necessary to any complex society: it goes back at least as far as ancient Rome.

        Agreed. It was not that long ago that females were not considered "legal persons". In fact, if I understand the chronology properly, North American corporations had greater legal person-hood before women ever did.

        • (Score: 2) by Oligonicella on Thursday June 05 2014, @10:26PM

          by Oligonicella (4169) on Thursday June 05 2014, @10:26PM (#51937)

          Bollocks. Define your term "legal person" (which you rightly put in scare quotes). Then give the reasons you have to consider corps has having been more legal persons than women. Shallow hyperbole undermines your argument.

          • (Score: 1) by RaffArundel on Friday June 06 2014, @03:54PM

            by RaffArundel (3108) on Friday June 06 2014, @03:54PM (#52293) Homepage

            Once upon a time, in many states in the US, women could not enter into legal agreements, own property, etc. unless they were widowers. Any such activity was the responsibility of their husband or father. Corporations could, far longer than their had been a US.

            Since this was a hot topic during the Seneca Falls conference, I'd assume it was an issue through the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. I vaguely recall that one argument against protecting the civil rights of former slaves in the decades following the Civil War was the "what's next? rights for women?!?"

            • (Score: 1) by dw861 on Friday June 06 2014, @06:57PM

              by dw861 (1561) Subscriber Badge on Friday June 06 2014, @06:57PM (#52348) Journal

              I can understand why Oligonicella balked at my suggestion, but RaffArundel has it entirely correct.

              We can give even more context for the jurisdiction about which I am more familiar: Canada.

              The Hudson's Bay Company was chartered in 1670 as the oldest incorporated joint-stock merchandising company in the English-speaking world. For almost all of the area in which it had a monopoly, it preceded what most of us would recognize as modern functioning governments. For most of Canada, the company was both government and the law.
              http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/hudsons-bay-company/ [thecanadianencyclopedia.ca]

              Regarding the status of women under the law in Canada. The British North America Act of 1867 did not recognize women as legal 'persons'. Because women did not have the status of 'persons' under the law, women were eligible for pains and penalties, but not rights and privileges.

              The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that women did not have the legal status of personhood in 1928. This was overturned one year later by the Judicial Council of Britain's Privy Council. This significant legal event, known as "The Person's Case" is commemorated on the back of the Canadian $50 bill.
              http://thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/famous-5/ [thecanadianencyclopedia.com]

              1929 was not very long ago. Back to the original post that spawned this sub-thread. I hope that sometime in the future, people will be similarly amazed that in our present, bots, programs, etc, were used as proxies for organizations with legal status to avoid punishment for violating rights to privacy.
                 

              • (Score: 2) by Oligonicella on Monday June 09 2014, @02:51PM

                by Oligonicella (4169) on Monday June 09 2014, @02:51PM (#53245)

                By 1867 women could not be bought and sold. They could not be disassembled and the parts fobbed off. They were not the target hostile takeovers. Corporations could, with legal impunity.

                I can dredge up as many differences in favor of women (most holding a higher ethical stand, I believe) as you can in favor of corporations. The original point was that corporations were considered *more* persons and I still say bollocks.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:02PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:02PM (#51847)

    Countering an ugly legal tactics with even uglier laws ... yeah.

  • (Score: 2) by Grishnakh on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:20PM

    by Grishnakh (2831) on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:20PM (#51853)

    If you're going to try to treat software programs as agents of the companies that deploy them, make sure to do the same for hardware. Otherwise, they'll just have the software synthesized into ASICs. You don't need software to do deep-packet inspection or reading emails.

    • (Score: 1) by Horse With Stripes on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:02PM

      by Horse With Stripes (577) on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:02PM (#51878)

      What about hardware?

      Our biggest concern should be with the people (aka Organware) approving these programs that violate our rights.

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Sir Garlon on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:12PM

      by Sir Garlon (1264) on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:12PM (#51885)

      We can hope that eventually the legal system will catch up to the blindingly obvious fact that whether logic is implemented in software or hardware is an irrelevant detail. Computers have only been part of people's everyday lives for 30 years or so, so basic technical literacy has penetrated the heads of the lawyers coming out of law school today, but has not come near touching people like the Supreme Court justices.

      --
      [Sir Garlon] is the marvellest knight that is now living, for he destroyeth many good knights, for he goeth invisible.
  • (Score: 3, Informative) by AsteroidMining on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:27PM

    by AsteroidMining (3556) on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:27PM (#51859)

    Just because the Supreme Court snuck it through the back-door, and the current politically packed court has chosen to lose its mind on the subject, doesn't mean we have to join in the insanity.

    • (Score: 2) by khallow on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:50PM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:50PM (#51873) Journal

      Just because the Supreme Court snuck it through the back-door

      It's not just a US thing. Sure, the US takes corporate personhood a little bit further than other countries do, but it also has considerably more aggressive free speech rights than those other countries do. Please recall that you're complaining about a consequence of free speech which is precisely where you'd expect the US to be out in front of everyone else legally.

      • (Score: 1) by Horse With Stripes on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:05PM

        by Horse With Stripes (577) on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:05PM (#51881)

        My concern is that the US government is sneaking up behind us to snatch away many of our rights ... with Free Speech in their sights as well. The corporations are safe. It's us biological citizens that have a lot to worry about.

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 06 2014, @02:16AM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 06 2014, @02:16AM (#52014)

      now that i think of it, it acutally gives new meaning to the quote "I'll Believe Corporations Are People When Texas Executes One"

  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by Bytram on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:38PM

    by Bytram (4043) on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:38PM (#51864) Journal

    Maybe not in a personhood sort of way, but something about this strikes me as very interesting.

    The operator of a car that strikes a pedestrian is responsible for the injury, not the car itself. The operator of a gun that is fired at a person is responsible, as well. Why should not the operator of a computer (program) that causes harm be responsible, too?

    • (Score: 3, Insightful) by jimshatt on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:50PM

      by jimshatt (978) on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:50PM (#51874) Journal
      But what Google claims, is that there is no harm done *because* it is done by a computer program. No human at Google has read your email, thus no harm done. I disagree (of course) because the program acts upon the information in the mails it reads.
      OTOH, suppose you have a rash or STD or whatever you're ashamed for. You can go to your doctor, but he's a friend of the family so you don't really want him to know. The alternative is some smart vending machine that scans your rash and gives you medication. This machine is owned by the same doctor, and he gets the dollar bills you put in it. The doctor doesn't invade your privacy because it's only the computer program that knows.
    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by bucc5062 on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:02PM

      by bucc5062 (699) on Thursday June 05 2014, @08:02PM (#51879)

      WHen its a program, whom do you then hold accountable...

      The Original programmer(s)
      The maintenance programmers
      The operators who may run/set up program operations
      The Project Manager
      The CEO

      With a car you have one actor in control
      With a gun your have one brain pulling the trigger

      With a program you have a chorus which is why it is hard to criminally charge a company/corporation for negligence since the blame can be diluted to the point of being worthless. I get where the author is coming from, but I would think this woudl open up a can of worms, not help make a tasty meal.

      --
      The more things change, the more they look the same
      • (Score: 2) by maxwell demon on Thursday June 05 2014, @11:14PM

        by maxwell demon (1608) on Thursday June 05 2014, @11:14PM (#51960) Journal

        When in doubt, the one who decided that the program is ready to be applied.

        --
        The Tao of math: The numbers you can count are not the real numbers.
    • (Score: 1) by slartibartfastatp on Thursday June 05 2014, @09:44PM

      by slartibartfastatp (588) on Thursday June 05 2014, @09:44PM (#51924) Journal

      And kinda answers the question posed in a story here some time ago: when the algorithm of your (future) automated car decides to crash based on the type of the car involved, who can be held accountable? obviously not the "driver".

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:47PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 05 2014, @07:47PM (#51871)

    File deletion is murder!

  • (Score: 2) by Ken_g6 on Thursday June 05 2014, @10:50PM

    by Ken_g6 (3706) on Thursday June 05 2014, @10:50PM (#51949)

    If computer programs are my agents, then am I legally liable for my bugs? I don't like this plan.

    But wait! If computer programs are like slaves, then if I sold a program - rather than licensing it - would that absolve me of liability? Then could this could get rid of all those awful license agreements? I'm starting to like this plan.

    • (Score: 1) by khedoros on Friday June 06 2014, @01:16AM

      by khedoros (2921) on Friday June 06 2014, @01:16AM (#52002)
      I'd take it that programs are the agents of whomever is operating them, not the original programmer. Take the case where the NSA buys a product off the shelf that they didn't write or cause to be written. We'd *still* want them to be liable for their use of the program, instead of the poor schmucks that made the "weapon" used in the crime.
  • (Score: 1) by FlatPepsi on Friday June 06 2014, @01:56AM

    by FlatPepsi (3546) on Friday June 06 2014, @01:56AM (#52008)

    If you're talking about giving machines rights, we'll talk about that shortly after human-level AI emerges.

    If you're talking legal games to subvert legal games- you've got the wrong solution to the problem. You need to go upstream to fix that problem.

  • (Score: 2) by khchung on Friday June 06 2014, @02:07AM

    by khchung (457) on Friday June 06 2014, @02:07AM (#52011)

    "Guns don't kill people, PEOPLE kill people"

    Haven't we heard this often enough by now? We don't need to treat guns as people when we hold the person pulling the trigger responsible, so why do we need to treat programs as people to hold Google responsible?

    "The Google defense--your privacy was not violated because humans didn't read your e-mail" is obviously PR doublespeak to get you confused. Nobody will think this logic holds water if you apply it to any other situation --

    - Virus writer: I didn't trash your computer, the virus did it!

    - Car driver: I didn't hit you, the car did! (maybe it will work if it were an autonomous car...)

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 06 2014, @06:10AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 06 2014, @06:10AM (#52092)

    So this makes me a murderer for killing a person before its time?

    #!/bin/sh
    echo "My last words are
    kill $$
    echo "I am a real person."

    • (Score: 2) by urza9814 on Saturday June 07 2014, @01:45AM

      by urza9814 (3954) on Saturday June 07 2014, @01:45AM (#52485) Journal

      That's not murder; it's suicide ;)

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 07 2014, @06:47AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday June 07 2014, @06:47AM (#52542)

        I built it to die. Obviously, this is the same as genetically engineering a person with planned obselesence.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 09 2014, @02:14AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday June 09 2014, @02:14AM (#53105)

    I ain't doin' 25 to life for killin' Clippy.