If you could enforce every law to the letter, would you?

All of this discussion about nearly-flawless DRM, GPS-based tax programs, and travel restrictions makes me wonder what happens as technology makes it more possible to locate and cite every transgression and whether that means we need to be changing the underlying laws.

Imagine this: you are driving down a country road behind a tractor with a slow triangle on it. The speed limit is 45 and the tractor is going 35 miles per hour. As you start to pass the vehicle, you notice an oncoming car. In response, you hit the accelerator, pushing your vehicle to 50 miles per hour for a few seconds while you deftly slip in front of the tractor and slow back to 45 mph. All is good, yes?

No. You pull up at the next gas station and the state-mandated GPS device indicates to the pump that you exceeded the speed limit by 5mph on that country road. As you pay for your gas, you are automatically charged another $65 for the ticket and the printed receipt indicates that you now have another point on your license and your insurance company will be notified in the next weekly data dump.

Impossible? Today maybe, but not so in the future. In fact, you did exceed the speed limit, and if the computers are allowed to make that determination (consider if the engine computer in your car were queried, you don't even get to defend yourself with the location and the lane change), you would be paying a fine and getting some points.

The problem is that most laws are literally made to be broken. When laws are written, it is assumed that they will be enforced by humans, adjudicated by humans, and that breaking them will be detected by humans. Certain recent laws may be an exception to the last item, but most of the others are true for any law that is more than a decade or two old.

As such, if we were to enforce all laws to their letter (without appeal and without a trial, as many new regulations are planned on being enforced), then we would have a number of unexpected consequences, such as the example above.

To bring this closer to debates we are seeing today, take copyright laws. The movie and music industries are trying their hardest to "crack down" on the "illegal" copying of their copyrighted works. To do this, they are very interested in DRM (Digital Rights Management), which acts as a sort of prior restraint against copying - we know you are going to do something illegal, so we're not even going to take the chance that you will use it for appropriate fair use. To my mind, this is basically the same thing as the automated traffic ticket above. No jury, no police officer, no judgment of circumstances, you rights to fair use are removed by the MPAA/RIAA, with the approval of the government.

If we are going to have this kind of "perfect enforcement", especially through prior restraint, then we need to start looking at the laws in a different way. The object of the laws should be to guarantee our rights are not abridged, not to guarantee the rights of the copyright holder. The same goes for the use of devices that track where you go and how fast, and it goes as well for your use of the air traffic system. We need more protection from the technology, not more protection of the technology.