The issue of how much content relating to our private lives is online and how accessible it is in security terms has become a thorny issue, but could it be that an obscure legal concept dating from medieval times holds the solution? Microsoft researcher Kate Crawford thinks so.
Crawford used her appearance at the April 2015 Theorizing the Web conference in New York to discuss “deodand.” This is a concept dating from medieval England concerning an item of private property deemed responsible for someone’s death. At different times during the medieval period, English law set out such things as horses, pigs and haystacks as being deodands. The owner was required to pay to the court as a fine the value of the relevant deodand. Crawford thinks there is merit in reconsidering its introduction for the modern internet age.
The deodand concept enjoyed something of a revival in English law during the 1830s, with railway companies – technology pioneers of their day – held to account for deaths caused by trains, such as in a crash, and were fined a sum equal to the value of a train, but the idea proved unworkable and was dropped.
Crawford believes that the deodand concept was seen off by the ability of corporations to shape their own accountability in a legal sense. She suggested to her audience at Theorizing the Web that allowing technology companies to use the idea of unseeable complexity as a means of insulating themselves is something that society should be wary of doing. She is proposing that if an algorithm undermines your life in some way – by affecting your credit worthiness, for example, or somehow restricting your life choices – then the owners of the relevant algorithms would be required to pay up their value as a fine.
The deodand concept is not without its challenges, of course. For one thing, calculating the actual value of an algorithm is not something that is easily arrived at. However, if Crawford’s proposal could be developed, then perhaps within a few decades courts would be using a concept that originated in the 11th century to hold those who shape our interactions online to some kind of account if things go awry.