Why Good Laws Go Bad

Congress Image

Congress Image

In Florida, the state legislature wanted to crack down on what it felt was a growing problem of Internet cafe gambling. To do so, it felt that the best way was to place steep restrictions on the types of machines that would be considered legal in the state for gambling-like activities.

As a result, they passed a new law that such said machines had to comply with three different rules:

  1. All machines had to be coin operated, no dollar bills, credit cards, etc.
  2. All games had to involve an element of skill, not just be pure chance
  3. No machine could offer a cash prise, only merchandise, and only of a value up to 75 cents.

With the law passed, the police began to move in on Internet cafes that offered gambling services and it seemed that the law was effective, shutting down the intended target.

But then some of those cafe owners began to cry foul saying that the law was being unfairly applied to only them. According to them, the law also makes Chuck E Cheese equally illegal.

Though many recoiled at the idea of a children’s arcade being an illegal den of gambling, upon closer inspection, the argument makes sense. The chain not only offers prizes with over 75 cent value, some going up to $20 or more, but it also has several games that are pure chance.

In short, a law that was intended to shutter Internet cafes widely considered to be shady, may have accidentally banned a popular destination for kids.

But it wasn’t the first or last law to go bad. The law of unintended consequences can be brutal and many times legislators are the first to feel its sting.

Good Intentions, Bad Legislation

Though people like to describe legislators as being evil and self-serving, most laws, in truth, start out with good intentions.

Take, for example, the controversial anti-circumvention components of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These provisions make it illegal to break digital locks placed on things such as ebook, music, etc.

The goal, rightly or wrongly, was to reduce piracy by enabling content creators to have legal protection of their locks. To protect against misuse of the law, it asked the Library of Congress to enact exemptions every three years at its discretion.

However, as digital locks get applied to more and more things, the breadth of what was protected by digital locks grew.

A law passed in 1998 didn’t foresee that people would use digital locks to keep you from working on your car, from refilling your printer cartridges or unlocking your cell phone. But that’s exactly what the law began to do and that’s why Congress is now mulling the Unlocking Technology Act of 2013, which aims to address many of these concerns.

But these are just two examples of laws passed with good intentions going very bad. But if it’s such a big problem, often with comical or disastrous consequences, why can’t legislators do more to stop it?

Here are five reasons why the problem is so pervasive and so difficult to stop.

1. Poorly Written Legislation

Some legislation, simply put, is written badly. Whether it’s not well thought out, omits certain parts or just isn’t properly targeted, sometimes a bill just starts out bad.

While it’s easy to blame legislators, it’s often not their fault. Legislators are burdened with the task of voting on an unholy amount of bills, many of which are in fields they are not experts in, while maintaining a full schedule of other, essential activities.

Couple that with the fact that most legislation is a process of compromise and group revision and you have a recipe for some pretty big mistakes. Our government is only human after all.

Still, the main point is that some legislation isn’t written well and just doesn’t adequately express the stated intent of the law. That can, and has in the past, lead to serious problems down the road.

2. Unprepared for Changes

A lot of legislation is written fairly effectively for the time, but things shift pretty quickly.

Imagine, for example, trying to write legislation regarding the Internet in 1998 that would hold up in 2013, as the U.S. tried to do with the DMCA. The Web was a completely different place then and it’s obvious many of the rules and ideas wouldn’t hold up.

Though courts are supposed to help interpret and apply laws as the world around them changes, that doesn’t always work out. Intent can be a very difficult thing to measure and even the best courts will struggle to apply old laws to new issues.

In short, even if a law is written well and adequate at the time it’s passed, it can quickly become obsolete, especially with the quick march of technology.

3. Sneaky People

The nature of laws is that, if you pass one, some people will try to break it. Of course, it’s even better if they can break the spirit of the law without violating the letter of it.

While people like to talk about loopholes written in laws and contracts, the truth is that its much more common for people to try and creep up to the line without crossing it or find ways to gain the benefit of breaking the law without actually doing so on paper.

This can result in laws being modified to try and prevent the exceptions, which in turn leads to a game of cat and mouse between legislators and those who want to defy them. That game, in turn, can ensnare a lot of innocent people.

Bottom Line

When good legislation goes bad, it affects everyone. As a blogger, it actually affects you more than most because you are not just a private citizen, but also a public figure, at least legally.

This means that not only do you have to think about the standard set of laws that everyone does, you also have to consider issues such as copyright, trademark, privacy, etc.

Bad legislation has more opportunities than ever to affect you and that makes it important that you pay attention to what’s going on and have a voice when you think something is jumping the tracks.

Remember, even if you disagree with what a legislator is doing, that doesn’t necessarily make them evil or immoral. Most legislators are trying to do what they think is best for their constituents but their actions might have unintended consequences.

This is why it’s important for people like you to be watching, to help point those cases out.