Tagged: technology

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Computable Contracts Explained – Part 1

Computable Contracts Explained – Part 1

I had the occasion to teach “Computable Contracts” to the Stanford Class on Legal Informatics recently.  Although I have written about computable contracts here, I thought I’d explain the concept in a more accessible form.

I. Overview: What is a Computable Contract?

What is a Computable Contract?   In brief, a computable contract is a contract that a computer can “understand.” In some instances, computable contracting enables a computer to automatically assess whether the terms of a contract have been met.

How can computers understand contracts?  Here is the short answer (a more in-depth explanation appears below).  First, the concept of a computer “understanding” a contract is largely a metaphor.   The computer is not understanding the contract at the same deep conceptual or symbolic level as a literate person, but in a more limited sense.  Contracting parties express their contract in the language of computers – data – which allows the computer to reliably identify the contract components and subjects.  The parties also provide the computer with a series of rules that allow the computer to react in a sensible way that is consistent with the underlying meaning of the contractual promises.

Aren’t contracts complex, abstract, and executed in environments of legal and factual uncertainty?  Some are, but some aren’t. The short answer here is that the contracts that are made computable don’t involve the abstract, difficult or relatively uncertain legal topics that tend to occupy lawyers.  Rather (for the moment at least), computers are typically given contract terms and conditions with relatively well-defined subjects and determinable criteria that tend not to involve significant legal or factual uncertainty in the average case.

For this reason, there are limits to computable contracts: only small subsets of contracting scenarios can be made computable.  However, it turns out that these contexts are economically significant. Not all contracts can be made computable, but importantly, some can.

Importance of Computable Contracts 

There are a few reasons to pay attention to computable contracts.   For one, they have been quietly appearing in many industries, from finance to e-commerce.  Over the past 10 years, for instance, many modern contracts to purchase financial instruments (e.g. equities or derivatives) have transformed from traditional contracts, to electronic, “data-oriented” computable contracts.   Were you to examine a typical contract to purchase a standardized financial instrument these days, you would find that it looked more like a computer database record (i.e. computer data), and less like lawyerly writing in a Microsoft Word document.

Computable contracts also have new properties that traditional, English-language, paper contracts do not have.  I will describe this in more depth in the next post, but in short, computable contracts can serve as inputs to other computer systems.  These other systems can take computable contracts and do useful analysis not readily done with traditional contracts. For instance, a risk management system at a financial firm can take computable contracts as direct inputs for analysis, because, unlike traditional English contracts, computable contracts are data objects themselves.

II. Computable Contracts in More Detail

Having had a brief overview of computable contracts, the next few parts will discuss computable contracts in more detail.

A. What is a Computable Contract?

To understand computable contracts, it is helpful to start with a simple definition of a contract generally. 

A contract (roughly speaking) is a promise to do something in the future, usually according to some specified terms or conditions, with legal consequences if the promise is not performed.   For example, “I promise to sell you 100 shares of Apple stock for $400 per share on January 10, 2015.”

computable contract is a contract that has been deliberately expressed by the contracting parties in such a way that a computer can:

1) understand what the contract is about;

2) determine whether or not the contract’s promises have been complied with (in some cases).

How can a computer “understand” a contract, and how can compliance with legal obligations be “computed” electronically?

To comprehend this, it is crucial to first appreciate the particular problems that computable contracts were developed to address.

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Stanford Law Review Online: Software Speech

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a Note by Andrew Tutt entitled Software Speech. Tutt argues that current approaches to determining when software or speech generated by software can be protected by the First Amendment are incorrect:

When is software speech for purposes of the First Amendment? This issue has taken on new life amid recent accusations that Google used its search rankings to harm its competitors. This spring, Eugene Volokh coauthored a white paper explaining why Google’s search results are fully protected speech that lies beyond the reach of the antitrust laws. The paper sparked a firestorm of controversy, and in a matter of weeks, dozens of scholars, lawyers, and technologists had joined the debate. The most interesting aspect of the positions on both sides—whether contending that Google search results are or are not speech—is how both get First Amendment doctrine only half right.

He concludes:

By stopping short of calling software “speech,” entirely and unequivocally, the Court would acknowledge the many ways in which software is still an evolving cultural phenomenon unlike others that have come before it. In discarding tests for whether software is speech on the basis of its literal resemblance either to storytelling (Brown) or information dissemination (Sorrell), the Court would strike a careful balance between the legitimate need to regulate software, on the one hand, and the need to protect ideas and viewpoints from manipulation and suppression, on the other.

Read the full article, Software Speech at the Stanford Law Review Online.

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Stanford Law Review Online: How the War on Drugs Distorts Privacy Law

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published an Essay by Jane Yakowitz Bambauer entitled How the War on Drugs Distorts Privacy Law. Professor Yakowitz analyzes the opportunity the Supreme Court has to rewrite certain privacy standards in Florida v. Jardines:

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon determine whether a trained narcotics dog’s sniff at the front door of a home constitutes a Fourth Amendment search. The case, Florida v. Jardines, has privacy scholars abuzz because it presents two possible shifts in Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. First, the Court might expand the physical spaces rationale from Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in United States v. Jones. A favorable outcome for Mr. Jardines could reinforce that the home is a formidable privacy fortress, protecting all information from government detection unless that information is visible to the human eye.

Alternatively, and more sensibly, the Court may choose to revisit its previous dog sniff cases, United States v. Place and Illinois v. Caballes. This precedent has shielded dog sniffs from constitutional scrutiny by finding that sniffs of luggage and a car, respectively, did not constitute searches. Their logic is straightforward: since a sniff “discloses only the presence or absence of narcotics, a contraband item,” a search incident to a dog’s alert cannot offend reasonable expectations of privacy. Of course, the logical flaw is equally obvious: police dogs often alert when drugs are not present, resulting in unnecessary suspicionless searches.

She concludes:

Jardines offers the Court an opportunity to carefully assess a mode of policing that subjects all constituents to the burdens of investigation and punishment, not just the “suspicious.” Today, drug-sniffing dogs are unique law enforcement tools that can be used without either individualized suspicion or a “special needs” checkpoint. Given their haphazard deployment and erratic performance, police dogs deserve the skepticism many scholars and courts have expressed. But the wrong reasoning in Jardines could fix indefinitely an assumption that police technologies and civil liberties are always at odds. This would be unfortunate. New technologies have the potential to be what dogs never were—accurate and fair. Explosive detecting systems may eventually meet the standards for this test, and DNA-matching and pattern-based data mining offer more than mere hypothetical promise. Responsible use of these emerging techniques requires more transparency and even application than police departments are accustomed to, but decrease in law enforcement discretion is its own achievement. With luck, the Court will find a search in Jardines while avoiding a rule that reflexively hampers the use of new technologies.

Read the full article, How the War on Drugs Distorts Privacy Law by Jane Yakowitz Bambauer, at the Stanford Law Review Online.