Beta testing legislation

Game developers are always looking for beta testers
Game developers are always looking for new beta testers

While in the UK we are immersed in heated debate regarding the Digital Economy Bill, and the threat of ACTA looms large, I have read with interest an article by Peter Grundy in Wired UK about beta testing legislation before it is released to the public. Everyone familiar with web development knows that one needs to test everything, from usability to policies in order to get things right, and that first versions will always require tweaking before wider release. If this works on everything from web applications to games, why should we believe that legislators are likely to get things right the first time?

The relatively short history of Information Technology law is paved with legislative efforts that range from the innocently misguided to the outrageously counter-productive. Would legislation benefit from some sort of beta testing in order to ascertain if it works well? One could argue that this is already done to a limited extent throughout the drafting process, but this is editing text, not actual testing of whether or not specific sections and clauses will actually work in real life.

Grundy makes the point that some of the best policy experts in the world are not legal experts, but virtual world game developers. He says:

“So who’s had the most experience in creating social policy, enacting it, watching the ramifications and unintended consequences filter through tens of millions of people – then iterating and fixing it in real time? It’s not the politicians. It is the massively multiplayer-online-game makers. Blizzard, creators of World of Warcraft, are probably the most skilled practitioners of highly-iterated, fully-tested public policy. They have more experience in what makes people tick, and how unintended side effects can wreak havoc on the most well-intentioned rules. They understand social policy is design. If they ran for office, they’d have my vote.”

Grundy is not the first person to make the connection between virtual worlds and policy-making. Michael Froomkin and Caroline Bradley have already proposed something similar when they commented that virtual worlds could be used to test legislation, and most importantly, the potential effects of legislation on society.

There may be something here, and I for one am sold to the idea. The main problem I can envisage is that regulators would need to have very clear methodology to assess the success or failure of specific legislation. Has it produced the desired effect? Would a wider roll-out reproduce the findings of the beta testing? The only true test is going live, but it would be worthy getting legislation that is already battle-ready, and not the ineffectual recycle-bin candidates we often get.

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