Identity and Profile: how we came to forget who we really are!

Digital New Deal

Identity and profile: how we came to forget who we really are.

La Novella del Grasso legnaiuolo (the Story of the Fat Woodcarver) recounts the famous joke plotted by Filippo Brunelleschi (one of the most relevant artists of the Renaissance) in 1409, during the plague, in Florence, to humiliate the ebonist Manetto Ammanatini, called Il Grasso.[1] It is considered one of the masterpieces of the “novella alla spicciolata” popular in the Florentine Renaissance.

The story struck me because it tells how important it is for us to know that we are the only source and origin of our identity. The story can be summarized as follows.

Filippo Brunelleschi and his group of friends were disappointed that Manetto, despite his lower status in the guild, often failed to attend their dinner parties. Unsure whether this was because of avarice or pride, the group decided to teach him a lesson, playing a complicated prank intended to confuse him as to who he really was.

So, one evening Brunelleschi met Manetto and put in his mind that his mother, an attractive forty-year old widow, was having an affair with a monk.

He accompanied him to the farmhouse owned by Manetto, where his mother and the monk were supposed to meet. In the farmhouse, which was conveniently empty that evening, some of Brunelleschi’s friends had sneaked in, imitating the voices of his mother and Manetto and staging a loud argument between mother and son, about the alleged immoral relationship with the monk.

Manetto knocked on the door of his farmhouse as his keys had been stolen by Brunelleschi. However, he could not help but notice that from inside the house came the voice of his mother speaking to him and that he was replying to her, arguing about a matter which, in theory, only he and his mother could know.

At the moment, some other friends of Brunelleschi arrived and greeted poor Manetto, talking to him as if he were a certain Matteo Mannini, a good-for-nothing who scrounged off his relatives. And then lots of others arrived, including some officers from the Guild who were looking for Matteo to imprison him for running up debts and who then proceeded to arrest him.

Some days later some young people claiming to be Matteo’s brothers appeared before the magistrates of the Guild and offered to pay his debts, provided that he gave up his degenerate lifestyle, which was breaking his mother’s (Matteo’s) heart.

Manetto, who didn’t want to stay in prison for something he knew he hadn’t done, promised his self-styled brothers that he would turn over a new leaf. He still believed he was Manetto and craved a chance to prove it.

So, Brunelleschi’s partners in prank, sent a monk from out of town to talk to him, after having convinced him that Manetto had lost his mind and thought he was … indeed Manetto, instead of Matteo.

And so the monk, that was (unlike all the others) in perfect good faith, managed to convince Manetto that he was actually Matteo.

To make sure he wouldn’t change his mind, during the following night Brunelleschi and his friends brought a coffin to Manetto’s workshop. In the morning when he woke up, they all started grieving and described how they had prepared the body for the coffin, so poor Manetto also attended his own funeral (as Matteo) and saw his (real) mother that didn’t recognize him, mourning Manetto’s death.

After the funeral Manetto (now Matteo) went to the inn where a nobleman, Filippo Spano, was staying while looking for artisans and artists to work at the court of Hungary, and offered his services as a cabinet maker, and left Florence, where he no longer knew who he was. << And Giovan Pesce, our Florentine merchant and a trustworthy man who lived in Signa di Schiavonia, found him in 1446 in Buda di Schiavonia, about whom he had heard this tale, saying that the prank had made him rich. >>

This is what happens to those who think of themselves what other people tell they are.

One wonders: in today’s world of social networking, how many times are we subtly influenced to see ourselves as others see us? Probably more often than we realize… because, while in Manetto’s time it was obvious that everyone had their own identity, today we can easily confuse identity and profile.

Let’s start from the beginning, with a short historical background.

Identity, before parish registers (around 1500) and population registers (around 1800), was not attributed to people by a document or an office, but by their bloodline, if they had one. Since Roman times, the Pater Familias was the only man who had the status and authority to act on behalf of all his family members (including extended family), but at the same time he was identified by it.

Identity, indeed, was not for everyone. It was owned by patricians and the “aequites” (wealthy people or influential people like generals, magistrates). But most citizens (the “plebs”), including free men and freedmen, were eventually defined by the “gens”, the clan, they came from, not by their family (bloodline). Only those whose bloodline could be traced, through birthright and adoption, and through an estate (“Domus/Villa”) belonging to their Familia, had not only legal capacity but also a real identity. Those who lived in a domus/villa belonging to others or in an insula (apartment building), despite being “cives romani” (citizens of Rome), and thus having full legal capacity, still they didn’t have a real identity as we understand it today: their identity was defined by the context of belonging, not by their family/history. Their legal capacity was therefore more theoretical, than a matter of fact. In Roman law, transaction were oral and needed witnesses. The Roman patricians and aequites had (owned, as part of their Familia) all the witnesses they needed for their legal transactions; the plebeians, on the contrary, had to find reliable witnesses for executing their transactions. And that was quite troublesome, because an unreliable witness (that wouldn’t remember, or show up in court, or that wouldn’t be considered trustworthy by a judge) could jeopardize any agreement, otherwise valid and binding.

Roman Law dealing with primogeniture, adoption and investiture of the Pater Familias must also be seen through the perspective of the need to ensure/certify the identity of the head of the family and his heritage, beyond any possible doubt/conflict.

Identity in ancient Rome and the Middle Ages was, therefore, a privilege (a true status symbol) accessible to those who had a suitable framework with which to identify themselves: a family (bloodline), an estate and a stable place of origin/residence.

Still in the French revolutionary constitution, the definition of a citizen with the right to vote was as follows: <<Pour être « citoyen actif », il faut avoir au moins 25 ans, résider dans la ville ou le canton depuis au moins une année, être inscrit au rôle de la garde nationale dans la municipalité du domicile, avoir prêté le serment civique et acquitté le paiement d’une contribution directe égale à trois jours de travail. The Constituent Assembly created a tiered system of political rights based on tax thresholds. It excluded the poor and gave only the less poor the right to appoint a minority of well-off voters. Passive citizens” could not be voters: women, people who had been accused of a criminal act, people who were bankrupt or insolvent, and domestic servants, of which there were a great number at that time, were considered dependents and excluded from the right to vote>>[2]. The ” citoyens actifs” in 1790 were estimated at about 4 million, out of a population of 28 million. The Marxist interpretation of these rules stressed that the right to vote was withheld from the poor, who were the majority of the population. A different, less ideological, interpretation is that the right to vote was only granted to identifiable citizens, in other words, those with their own identity: having served in the national guard was not a particularly elitist requirement[3], however, it excluded many of those citizens who were malnourished and unhealthy. Despite the revolution, in France servants and their families, as in ancient Rome, were considered second-class citizens, because they weren’t “traceable”, they were simply put…“nobodies out of nowhere”!

So in the eighteenth century you were someone (had an identity) ultimately if you were able to establish your own estate, where to live with your family; today you are someone if you get an ID from the state in which you live.

In today’s digital society, we experience first-hand the awful consequences that the social network has on the political discourse. In fact, even unidentified individuals, and/or those who do not belong to our political community (State, region or national federation), can play a full part in the political discourse. The threat for which many people were excluded from political rights in the past two centuries has materialized at last: the political discourse is influenced (often steered) by those who have “nothing to loose”, because they are not identifiable, traceable… in fact most fake news are inventions of “fake” (not existing) persons.

But back to the history of identification: the build up, since the fifteenth century, of objective ways of providing people with a proper identity, was of great importance for extending the access to wealth and proper legal guarantees. On the other hand, registers and offices responsible for “registering and certifying” our identity were (are) the expression of a policy, aiming at having greater control over the population.

At the beginning of the XX century, population registrars were ubiquitous and already able to trace back ancestry for generations. This had made obsolete (and thus discriminatory) the determination of active citizenship based on wealth, that was progressively repealed. Certainly, the social and political upheavals of the First World War were decisive in extending to women the right to vote (suffrage) and in determine the abrogation the right to vote based on census. However, one cannot help but notice that the general obligation to register births and deaths at the population registrars (between 1860 and 1880) in Europe, created an effective and extensive system of identification (profiling) of all citizens and that the extension of political rights to all coincided with the implementation of an infrastructure for managing the identity of all citizens, whose size and scope were absolutely unprecedented in the history of mankind.

Population registrars were extremely effective in making draft avoidance all but impossible; on the other hand all citizens benefited from having their own identity granted by the state, reducing the gap between those who had an identity of their own and those who, instead, had a second-grade identity, derived from others on whom it depended (servants, tenant farmers, etc..). We have got access to political participation, at the price of greater control of the state on our lives: normally history books tell only the first part of the story…

History shows that there are two key factors for the birth of the middle class: on the one hand having a demonstrable identity and on the other having access to certain property titles.[4] This explains the mass identification programs that have been carried out by developing countries, such as India and Egypt.

It is precisely the success of this immense machinery for identifying and profiling citizens that has led to a change in the concept of personal identity. Originally, having an identity was the sign of someone’s maximum achievement of civil and legal rights (having managed to build an identity so tangible and real, that it could be passed on, to the offspring), with the implementation of universal civil registers and civil status records, identity had become a condition imposed by the state on the citizen, to give him full access to his rights.

Our identity, as it results at the population registrars, does not differ much from our profile on a social network: they are both databases in which each of us is a record in which data that belongs to our personal sphere is gathered. Their purpose and function are different, not their structure, or the way they work.

One of the effects of the ubiquity of computerization, is that today there is no longer a significant difference between the security and technical reliability of public and private registers (databases) in which we are registered. Some public information systems have, by law, a special probative value, but if a computer expert were asked to analyze a database, it would be difficult to deduce from its technical properties, whether it belongs to a public administration or to private entities.

On the contrary, in the world of paper, only the state had such a vast and complex organization as to be able to create reliable registers, such as those of the population registrars (trusted by the public): in Italy in the forties[5], the law provided that the local prefect[6] had to number and stamp every page of the birth-registers, before they were utilized; the registers were in double original, kept following the four eyes security principle[7] and their maintenance was subject to control by the state attorney, by the Governorand by Mayor’s secretariat… in short, no private organization had such professionalism, powers and such a ramified organization, able to provide so much documental security. Today a computerized population registrar, is largely a “law-compliant” system for storing birth certificates with specially structured metadata. Its difference, compared to any other legitimate private archive is negligible, from the phenomenological and technical point of view.

Nevertheless, the prevailing opinion is that our “true” identity, both from a phenomenological and from a technical point of view, is nothing else than our administrative profile in the population registrar database, according to which identity cards and passports are issued.

This hides a dangerous misunderstanding, which in a digital society has terrible consequences.

It is the misunderstanding into which Manetto fell in the story: he accepted that his identity was determined by others. To a Florentine of the fifteenth century, it was absurd, since Manetto belonged to the 10% of the population with their own identity, that derived from his family’s bloodline, his estate (first house, second house, farmhouse, workshop) and from his belonging to the Guild of the woodcarvers. There was no other way of assessing one’s personal identity.

From the moment we accept that a record in a public database corresponds to our identity, and that our rights descend from it, we have instantly weakened most of our (digital) constitutional rights, as their only point of allocation is not part of us, but it is a digital record held in computer archives not managed/controlled by us. Therefore, instead of holders of rights, we become licensees of these rights.

As long as our rights could be exercised only “offline”, by going somewhere in person, it is obvious that the mistake of regarding our administrative profile (mostly recorded on paper) as our true identity did not have any consequence, because our physical presence (in flesh and blood) was anyway required, in order to be able to exercise our rights and to fulfil our obligations. Through physical presence we “keep” our identity (still) “in our hands”.

However, now that the physical presence is no longer required, it is obvious that if my “true identity” is elsewhere (for example in the domain of the municipality, by definition inaccessible, or in a different accessible domain, regulated by different rules and purposes), I operate in absentia without a legal representative empowered in the forms of law: the only way to “be present” in a digital transaction, is that it takes place (and / or is proven) thanks to the presence and relevance in it of a unique personal digital identifier, for example the European eIDAS Qualified Electronic Signature (according to the Regulation 910/2014/EU[8]). I “exist” in a computer domain if three conditions are met:

  1. my “unique identifier” (url, hash, eID, digital signature, etc..) is used in that domain for the allocation of the transactions
  2. such “unique identifier” is truly (verifiably) related to me
  3. and under my exclusive control[9].

It is telling, that the eIDAS Regulation, in Chapter II does not require for electronic identification means to have the same strong requirements! In fact it assumes ad a matter of fact, that electronic identification means are “issued” by EU member states. So, meanwhile the signature must be under the sole control of the signer, the identity may be under the solo control of the state. So much about constitutional rights and digital citizenship in the digital environment !

If we want to uphold our inalienable rights in the digital environment and achieve at the same time proper technical security it is necessary that “digital presence/participation” aren’t a conceptual artifice or a legal fiction: presence/participation in the digital dimension it is determined by procedures such as log-in, signature, creation of an audit trail, etc.; we have a real digital presence, phenomenologically verifiable, only if the data of the digital presence can be traced back to an IT system that is truly under my exclusive control and that this IT system has actually activated and implemented such transactions.

In law, before the internet, a transaction in absentia (i.e. without me attending to it in person) and without the intervention of my proxyholder, was void, because to have an effect on me I had to recognize and ratify it. Today it is common practice to enter into agreements remotely, where something (computer, mobile phone, tablet) spends my name, my identity, but I (or rather my digital identity) have never been present in the domain in which the transaction is executed: normally we can only find some sort of temporary one-time allocation-point for the transaction, indirectly linked to me. My personal identity is stated, but is not phenomenologically present in the transaction.

I still wonder why the fiction of presence through a PC (smart device) is universally accepted, in the absence of any empirical foundation.

Well, part of the answer is based on the fact that we confuse identity with profile, since we consider our administrative profile to be our only “true” identity. A profile is never with us and it’s not even “us”: it’s a page of a numbered and stamped DIN-A3 paper document, which is a record of a public administration database. Indeed, we got used to thinking that our “true” identity is someone else’s creation, which is not inherently/ontologically with us … which is precisely the mistake that Manetto made, to his detriment.

At a psychological/sociological level, our mistake of perspective with respect to our identity is understandable, because part of the process of growing up and adapting to society consists of learning to recognize and accept what others think of us and the role that is attributed to us (that we choose) in society. We learn, in short, that it is not only what we think and tell others about ourselves that counts, but that we must be able to verify it (enrich it, filter it) through the feedback that comes from others, in particular and especially from institutions (family, school, military, workplace, etc..).[10]

Therefore, if the law suggests that our true identity is stored and represented by a common identity document, which becomes part of the social rite of verifying that I am really me… well, it is not surprising if, in the end, identity and personal administrative profile have become synonymous.

The risks are obvious, but we have ignored them, as we live in an open democratic society in which (until now) the fundamental rights of the person have not been called into question. But the internet is different, and we are seeing a dramatic shift of tone in open and closed networks: censorship isn’t anymore an evil, but the only tool at hand for trying to police social networks. Well… it is an ancient tool, that was used over the millennia every time there was the need to support a certain account of reality. When in 1980 we read “Il nome della Rosa”[11] by Umberto Eco, probably we considered the issue archaic and (sort of) primitive; now forty years later exactly the same issue of avoiding the dissemination of “false knowledge” is at the very centre of our political and constitutional discussion. I must admit: forty years ago, I would never ever imagined, that we would be embroiled in the very same discussions, and the majority of democratic and pluralistic governments worldwide, would support (encourage) the views of Jorge of Burgos (the blind monk) and Malachia of Hildesheim and his assistant Berengar of Arundel (the monastery’s librarians).

Anyone who met, before the fall of the iron curtin, a Russian delegation or a delegation from an Eastern European country, knows that the surrender of identity documents by citizens of the communist bloc, was an essential part of the mechanics of controlling people. In order to exercise one’s rights, physical presence wasn’t sufficient, one had also to have proof of the existence of one’s administrative profile and proof that a that administrative profile really referred to oneself. In short, when the only “true” and acceptable identity is the one over which the state has a monopoly on, all the rights that are recognized to us become purely theoretical, because they are subordinate to the existence of the only “true” proof that I am myself. The proof of my identity is inherently elusive, when the identification means are the monopolistic preserve of the entity (the state) against which I am supposed to assert my fundamental rights.

This is why, not only in the digital world, but also in any physical legal system, my identity cannot be reduced to the existence of my own administrative profile. At this stage of technological and social evolution, it must be finally recognized that there is only one true identity and it is precisely the one which is incorporated and is genuinely substantiated in my person. Any fiction of identity is a serious threat to freedom and legal certainty. There is a fallacy in talking of “self soverign” identity[12]: it assumes that there is a “sovereign identity” (issued/managed) by the state. I would rather prefer that we speak of “national administrative profile” when talking of the identity (identification means) issued/managed by the state and of (true) “personal identity” when we address what today is known as “self sovereign” identity. It isn’t just about a proper naming convention, for defining digital identity; it is about making evident that for asserting our constitutional rights we cannot rely on something that is owned and managed by the very entity against which we are willing to assert such fundamental rights. It is like to have to register at the local police station for getting an electronic bracelet, before attending a public event, such as a strike or a demonstration. This was never the case, in history, and we may guess what consequence it would have had, if such an obligation would have been enforceable/enforced (as it is now in the digital environment) before the French Revolution or the American Independence War!

Today we are not free on open networks and social networks, where identity is attributed to us and managed by others who manage the domains in which we move, without any possibility for us to influence it … even less than Manetto, who in the end decided to run away from Florence and create a new identity and life, at a time when passports were not required, only a letter granting him free passage from the nobleman Filippo Spano. We cannot escape from the Internet; nor can we escape from the state should it lose our identity, or should we lose it, just like Manetto lost it. In the digital environment of today, with electronic monitoring, face recognition and state-owned identity, we are more controlled and less free than the slaves of yore; according to Roman law, slaves were vocal instruments (instrumenta vocalia) lacking not only capacity to act legally, but also bare of any personal identity (that also servants lacked of, because, like slaves, they were identified through the estate to which they belonged to).

Whenever a person was provided an identity by the very same entity that was controlling him, such person was not a free man, according to the law of his time. This is true also today: if in the digital environment we don’t have a true digital identity, as defined above (true, real and controlled by us), it is impossible for us to be truly free, self-determined, because we cannot enact our rights. In this our condition resembles the conditions of serfs, that have in theory the same rights of their masters, but no real access to them[13].

Therefore, we can conclude that identity over the centuries was a laborious statement of who we are, which only a minority of fortunate/privileged people managed to achieve. Once the institutions made it possible for everyone to have access to an identity, the concept of identity and administrative profile overlapped and became confused, because it was ontologically impossible for someone to be present and identifiable/identified, without being in the place.

However, the experiences of totalitarian regimes at the end of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century have shown us that imposing a single identity (the state identity) as a prerequisite for access to their rights, is likely to become a serious form of repression, that could even lead to genocide.[14]

We must therefore conclude that in order to perform its function, identity cannot simply be a profile, nor a legal fiction. It must exist as a real phenomenon and must therefore be connected to us in a unique and secure way. It must also be used only by us, without any alternatives or fictions that do not have a clear legal basis (such as, for example, power of attorneys these days).

This has a number of important implications:

  1. we must note that, in the world of digital transactions, we currently operate on the basis of a series of fictions and presumptions that expose us to all the risks and legal consequences that derive from having actually participated in such transactions, even if many of the fundamental protections to which we could and should aspire (confidentiality, prohibition of profiling), are denied to us because we are “sans papiers”, not represented by a “true” identity but purely a presumptuous and ephemeral one (only valid within the domain of the transaction, i.e. generated and self-certified by our transaction’s counterpart). These fictions and presumptions need to be reviewed, in the light of the Roman case law on transactions between Pater Familias and families, and in the light of the fundamental rights of the person, which cannot be weakened because of the practices that are established in e-commerce. It is false to say that we have spontaneously renounced our rights: we have been forced, on pain of being excluded from many legal transactions and from many social interactions. Blackmail works as we all know: “If you want to be part of Instagram, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, etc.. you must allow us to collect data about what you do, so that we can generate a profile for you to be able to recognise you. But if you don’t agree, you are out.” At this point it has become necessary that we claim the right to be identified by our true identity (and not by a surrogate one managed by others) and especially our right not to say anything about us (as we would do in any store, refusing to be profiled). This right must also be exercised immediately online. The excuse that profiling is exclusively/necessarily required to enable proper identification is a fig leaf that no one believes in, any more and on which legal reasoning can no longer be based. Certain identifiers (SEID, IMEI, Serial Numbers, etc.) and the computer systems through which we operate on networks (smartphones, tablets, PCs) should be recognised as legal entities controlled by us, for the same reasons that associations, foundations and companies have been recognised as legal entities, i.e. in order to have transparently regulated mechanisms for translating human interactions and thereto related legitimate expectations into legal effects.
  2. The eIDAS Regulation in Chapter II has taken a first step in the sense of withdrawing the online usable identity from the state monopoly and in the sense of making it phenomenologically true data of the digital transaction. However, the practical application of the eIDAS Regulation at this time is influenced by the (as we can see superficial and wrong) idea that the only “true” identity is our profile generated and managed by the registry office and the civil status records. Even if the identity provider is not the government, in the end what is being managed are the profiles that the government provides us with. It is necessary for eIDAS identity providers to promote tools for self-generation and self-management of identity (such as blockchain, orsmartphones) that could be called “freedom devices” because they present the image and idea of us to the network that we choose freely, and not the profile that the domain manager has imposed on us to be able to operate within it, exposing us to a generalized and total profiling. Law is beginning to move in this direction: the U.S. Supreme Court in two cases has already decided that smartphones are protected by habeas corpus[15] as if they were part of ourselves.
  3. No data without income: if data collection and digital profiling were really allowed only with our consent and only for the purposes for which we have issued an authorization, we would retain control over such digital data, so as to ensure that they are deleted once the permitted use has been exhausted. For decades there have been cryptographic solutions that guarantee this (algorithms by David Chaum), and now also the Blockchain. Still such solutions never became viable, not only for lack of a proper business model, but also because the proper (legal) cathegories were missing.
    The missing (legal) cathegory is “no data without income”: the existence of our personal data on a database, if not specifically authorized, must be the source of an obligation of remuneration that does not admit evidence to the contrary. If we serve, not occasionally, customers at the dining tables of a restaurant, labour law doesn’t allow the restaurant owner to prove that I didn’t have a working contract. Labour law looks at the mere fact that there has been a performance of work to the benefit of an enterprise. So likewise one should only look at the fact that certain data were collected by a certain business. Data that we generate are an indirect by-product of our (recreational ?) activity on open networks: it is the same argument that was used decades ago to not reward softball players or black artists who played in jazz clubs. Here, too, case law has finally stated that it is not the subjective motive that counts, but only the objective use that an enterprise makes of the human activity (even when subjectively recreational). Incredibly with regard to our activities on open and social digital networks, jurisprudence has regressed about 100 years, helped by the fact that it is not personally us or our true digital identity that produces the data, but a “user” vaguely identified within a third party domain, by some username and password and vaguely connected to us.
  4. Finally, we need a profound cultural change: while we would be horrified to discover that the building manager (or the telecom of the moment) have illegally installed cameras and microphones in our house that record everything of our private lives, instead are indifferent when the managers of networks and search engines know even more about us than they would if they had hidden cameras in our house. Lawyers tend to rationalize the different criminal and civil treatment of the two situations, restricting our domicile to domestic walls only and pretending that our computers and mobile phones are instead in a publicly accessible place. So “planting” in our computer cookies to other codes that simplify our profiling isn’t a breach of our domicile, but the legitimate use of a private public space[16]. This is existentially false and serves only to legitimise an invasion of our private sphere, which is not legitimate, and which should never have been.

The first pre-condition for upholding in the digital environment the fundamental rights that our liberal pluralistic democratic constitutions consider inalienable, are open and transparent systems: that is a digital environment with no hidden features and in which everyone is treated the same way[17].

The second pre-condition for upholding the fundamental rights in the digital environment is a true digital identity under our sole control. It is also the main remaining competitive edge that occidental IT companies could have with respect to their Asian competitors: a digital identity that is consistent with the values of free, open, pluralistic, liberal societies.

The third pre-condition for upholding the fundamental rights is provided in Europe by Chapter III of the eIDAS Regulation: trustworthy digital services that allow to be sure that a given set of data: a) was created by a true/given identity; b) is unchanged since then; c) can be communicated (or published) in a trustworthy and secure way.

The fourth pre-condition for upholding the fundamental right is provided in Europe by the General Data Protection Regulation (EU) 2016/679[18]: and that is the fundamental rights to maintain control over our personal data, so that profiling cannot happen without our knowledge/consent.

Meanwhile Net Neutrality has been considered in all its possible aspects, in my next paper, I will show how eIDAS Trust Services and GDPR are linked and need to be complemented by the use of our true digital identity, about which was the present paper.


Fondo Palatino Manoscritto 51.

Fu in Firenze nel 1410 certi giovani che dubitandosi di pistolenzia per alquanti che di ciò sé’ammalarano, la qual pistolenzia seguì“ l’anno seguente 1411; onde e detti giovani, per fuggire quegli pensieri, si radunavano quasi ogni sera a cena insieme, quando a casa d’uno e quando a casa de l’altro, con facendo insieme molte piacevolezze e giuochi. Infra gli altri v’era uno giovane che avea nome Mariotto, ma non era chiamato né tenuto se non per el Grasso legnaiuolo. Ora costui era semplice persona, ma bonissimo maestro de l’arte sua, e massime di tarsie; e per faccende, ovvero per avarizia, sé’era alquanto tolto da queste cene, e era stato parecchi d“ che non v’era suto; onde la brigata ne incominciò a mormorare che ‘l Grasso gli aveva cosi“ abbandonati, e massime perch’era di bassa condizione a rispetto degli altri. Onde una sera infra l’altre, ragionando infra loro che ‘l Grasso non gli degnava, disse uno di loro che aveva nome Filippo di ser Brunellesco: Per la mia fé, se voi volete aiutarmi, io gli farò un giuoco, che gli farò parere [d’essere] uno altro. Risposono tutti essere contenti. Ora costoro rimasano insieme d’accordo di quello volevano fare, come udirete. L’altro d“, presso alla sera, Filippo se n’andò alla bottega del Grasso: la quale bottega era in sulla piazza di San Giovanni; e sopra la bottega avea la casa della sua abitazione, quantunque avesse l’entrata seperata dalla sua abitazione; [e ‘n] casa era el Grasso e la madre, e non altri. Ora usava la madre del detto Grasso, alcuna volta quando voleva fare bucato, andare a farlo a una loro possessione che si chiamava in Polverosa, appresso alla città, dove avea una acconcia abitazione, oltre a quella del suo lavoratore; e costei in questi d“ v’era andata. Ora stando Filippo a vedere lavorare el Grasso, disse Filippo al Grasso: -Vuo’ tu darmi stasera cena? Rispose el Grasso: -No, perché mia madre non è nella terra. Disse Filippo: -Dove è? Disse el Grasso: -Egli è più d’un d“ ch’ella andò in villa a fare el bucato, ed è dua d“ che doveva tornare e non è tornata, di che molto me ne maraviglio. Allora Filippo cominciò a ghignare: -Io non me ne maraviglio già io. Disse il Grasso: -Perché non te ne maravigli tu? Disse Filippo: -Perché no. Allora il Grasso gli entrò sospetto, e disse: -Deh, dimmi perché. Rispose Filippo: -Io non tel voglio dire. Disse el Grasso di nuovo: -Perché non me lo vuo’ tu dire? Disse Filippo: -Perché tu ti crucceresti. Disse el Grasso: -Non farò. Disse Filippo: -Se tu mi voi promettere di non ti crucciare, io tel dirò. Rispose el Grasso: -Non farò, per la mia f; [non] mi corruccerò di niente. E in questo parlare Filippo il tenne tanto in tempo, che pensò che le porte della città fussono serrate; poi gli disse: -Fratel mio, tu sai ch’io sono venuto più volte teco in villa e statovi un d“ e dua per volta, quando v’è stata monna Giovanna tua madre; e sai che tu hai per vicino el prete, che è giovane fresco e bello, e fatti molte carezze; e ho veduto che fa uno buono occhio a monna Giovanna tua madre, e monna Giovanna a lui; sì che sé’ella vi soprastà, non te ne maravigliare. Allora el Grasso udendo quelle parole, che invero non credo ne fusse niente, perché essendo il prete giovane [ed ella] di circa a anni quaranta sana e fresca donna sanza marito e avendo l’agio e il tempo, nonn’è da credere; ma pure el Grasso ne prese grande maninconia, e disse: -Tu hai fatto male a penare tanto a dirmelo, perché se me lo avessi detto prima che fussono serrate le porte, sarei andato insino in villa e nascostomi in luogo, che quando el prete fusse intrato in casa, gli arei insegnato cantare una nuova messa. Ma io mi leverò domattina dall’aprire della porta e anderonne là, e se vel giungo, el concerò per modo non ne mangerebbono e cani. Disse Filippo: -Non ti dissi io che tu ti crucceresti? Disse el Grasso: -Come diavole! sono queste cose da non si crucciare? Disse Filippo: -Mai no, che non se [ne] vuole crucciare: lascia fare a chi fa -E’ par sé“ buono a te? disse el Grasso. -Tu mi faresti rinnegare la f, che quello schericato traditore faccia simil cosa a mia madre! E al corpo di Giuda, sé’io vel giungo, il concerò per modo che non ne mangerebbono e cani. Disse allora Filippo: -Tu se’ una bestia. Come vuoi tu far male a chi vuol bene a te e alle tue cose? El Grasso disse: -Tu mi faresti dare l’anima al diavolo. Disse Filippo: -El pensiero lascio a te, poiché tu vuoi essere una pecora. Disse el Grasso: -Io non viddi mai il più strano omo di te! Rispose Filippo: -Se tu mi volessi credere, io ti direi el parere mio, che sarebbe il ben tuo; ma poi che tu [non] mi vuoi credere, io non tel voglio dire. -Per certo disse el Grasso -tu mel dirai, e ti prometto di fare quello che mi dirai. Allora Filippo disse: -Poi che tu [ti] vuoi attenere al mio consiglio, io tel dirò. Tu sai che queste sono cose rincrescano, e massime agli uomini che hanno alquanto d’intelletto: el prete è pure astuto, e tua madre invecchierà; fa vista di non vedere, lassagli fare tanto che esca loro gli occhi. El prete n’anderà pure col peggio, credimi: che vuoi tu maggior vendetta? -El Grasso cominciò a soffiare, e andava di su in giù per la bottega senza parlare niente. In questo andare, Filippo, sapea dove stava appiccata la chiave della casa in bottega, tolsela che ‘l Grasso non se ne avvide, e poi disse al Grasso: -Serra la bottega, e andiamo alla Nunziata inanzi che sia più notte. E così andarano senza parlare niente l’uno a l’altro; e giunti in chiesa andarano a torre l’acqua benedetta, e come sapete ch’è usanza che ognuno va a ‘nginochiarsi chi in uno luogo e chi in un altro, Filippo lasciò andare el Grasso inanzi, e lui diè volta indrieto con uno de’ loro compagni, che l’aspettava; e andarono a casa del Grasso, e apersono l’uscio e entrarono dentro, e andarono suso e accesono in sala un gran fuoco, e lasciarano le finestre aperte, acciò che si vedesse el lume su per la piazza di San Giovanni. E avea Filippo lasciato uno delli suoi compagni in sulla detta piazza e dettogli: -Quando tu vedi che ‘l Grasso viene, fischia forte, sé“ ch’io t’oda. El Grasso poi ch’ebbe dette le sue divozioni a Nostra Donna, si levò ritto e guardò per Filippo, e non vedendo se ne venne verso casa. E quando giunse in sulla piazza, il compagno di Filippo fischiò; e Filippo, intese, cominciò a contraffare monna Giovanna madre del Grasso, e ‘l compagno contraffacea il Grasso: e contendendo insieme, il Grasso guardò alle finestre e vidde sì gran lume, e disse in fra sé: -Forse che monna Giovanna sarà tornata, e andò verso l’uscio e sentì contendere che gli parea la madre con uno. Maravigliossi, e trovò che la chiave non v’era, e andò a l’uscio di casa e stava a udire. E quello che contraffacea el Grasso diceva a monna Giovanna: -Che vuol dire che voi siate tanto stata? Ella rispondea: -Ho fatto quello m’è piaciuto. Diceva quello che contraffaceva el Grasso: -Eh, quanto v’è piaciuto! Voi vi doveresti ben vergognare. Ella diceva: -Di che? Lui diceva: -Eh! ‘l sapete ben voi. Ella diceva: -Che vuo’ tu dire? -Vo’ dire che voi faresti il meglio attendere ad altro e tenere altri modi, ché non si dice altro per questa terra se non de’ modi che voi tenete in questa maladetta villa. Disse quello che contraffaceva monna Giovanna: -Dio ti dia il male anno e la mala pasqua, ribaldo che tu se’! Diceva quello che contraffaceva il Grasso: -Pure oggi venne da me uno buono cittadino, mio caro amico…. e qui li disse appunto quello che Filippo glie avea detto al Grasso proprio in bottega la sera. Maravigliandosi forte el Grasso diceva in fra sé: -Che diavolo è questo? Quella è monna Giovanna, e quello parla con lei, alle parole pare essere me. Monna Giovanna diceva al Grasso: -Grasso, tu se’ impazzato o tu se’ imbriaco, alle parole che tu di’. El Grasso non si arrischiava di picchiare l’uscio, e pure infine picchiò forte. Quello che contraffaceva el Grasso disse: -Chi è laggiù? Rispose el Grasso: -Sono io. Disse quel di dentro: -Che vuo’ tu? Rispose el Grasso: -Apri. Disse colui: -Matteo, vatti con Dio per istasera, ch’ i’ ho altro che fare. Disse el Grasso: -Io sono il Grasso e non Matteo. Disse colui: -Qual Grasso? Rispose el Grasso: -El padrone di questa casa. Allora disse quel d’entro: -Tu mi darai ad intendere ch’io sia Calandrino, a dire che tu se’ me. Io ti dico: Matteo, se tu hai troppo beuto, vattene a casa e dormi e non mi dar più affanno, ch’io ne [ho] troppo. Allora el Grasso picchiava, e stava come smarrito. E quello di dentro disse: -Per la mie f, se tu picchi più, io torrò uno bastone e verrò giù e darotti tante bastonate, che tutto ti romperò. E non restando el Grasso di picchiare, quello di dentro tolse un bastone e corse giù per la scala e aperse l’uscio; e ‘l Grasso, ch’era vile, fuggì in sulla piazza, e vide colui che ha il suo cuoio indosso e la sua cappellina in capo, e sta come smarrito. Quello d’entro diceva: -Vien qua, poltrone! In quello passò dall’uscio quello che aveva fischiato, e disse a quello ch’era in su l’uscio: -Buona sera, Grasso: che romore è questo? Disse colui: -Egli è un pazzo d’un Matteo che mi picchia l’uscio e dice che vuol venire in casa a mio dispetto. Disse colui: -E’ debba essere imbriaco. Grasso mio, vattene e lascialo ire in mala ora. Allora serrò l’uscio, e ‘l Grasso che avea udito ogni cosa, [stava come] insensato e non sapea che si fare. In questo passò Piero Pecori, uno de’ loro compagni, e il Grasso se gli f incontro e disse: -Chi sono io? -Disse Piero: -Se’ una bestia; e andò via. In quello venne un altro lor compagno che avea nome ser Iacopo Mangiatroia: il Grasso se gli f incontro, e ser Iacopo disse: -Buona sera, Matteo. El Grasso rispose: -Che Matteo? Io sono el Grasso. Disse ser Iacopo: -Che Grasso? Io ti conosco che tu se’ Matteo; e andò all’uscio della casa e chiamò forte: -O Grasso! El Grasso di dentro rispose: -Messere. – -Apri l’uscio. Colui gli aperse, e ser Iacopo andò su. Ser Iacopo diceva: -Grasso, tu se’ una bestia; tu ti fai sentire per tutta la piazza! E monna Giovanna diceva, e ‘l Grasso rispondea. El Grasso stava in sulla piazza e udiva ogni cosa, e era mezzo morto. In questo venne uno messo degli ufiziali della Mercatantia con parecchi birretti. Innanzi venne uno giovane del fondaco degli Alessandri, e presono il Grasso e dissono: -Matteo, vien con noi. Disse el Grasso: -Io non sono Matteo, anzi sono il Grasso. Disse quel giovane: -Tu non dicesti così quando togliesti quel panno dal fondaco. Io t’ho fatto credenzia, e chiesi cento volte questi danari, e ha’ ti fatto beffe di noi, e di’ che se’ il Grasso: menatel via e vederemo chi sarà. E così lo menorono alla Mercatantia, e messollo in prigione. Erano e prigionieri informato di questo fatto, e quando entrò dentro, tutti dissono: -Ben venga Matteo. Che vuol dire questo che tu se’ qua? Disse il Grasso: -Io n’uscirò domattina. E la mattina venne alla prigione uno loro compagno che aveva nome Filippo Rucellai: el Grasso era alla finestra, e Filippo fé vista di nollo conoscere e disse: -O compagno, deh, in servigio, chiamami il tale, che era in prigione. Colui l’ud“ e venne oltre. Disse al Grasso: -Matteo, deh levati un poco di qui, ch io ho bisogno di parlare con costui di segreto. El Grasso si levò, e quando costoro ebbono parlato, volendosi Filippo partire, disse el Grasso: -O valente uomo, conoscete voi uno che ha nome il Grasso legnaiuolo, che ista in sulla piazza di Santo Giovanni? Rispo[se] Filippo: -Non conosco io? altro! Egli è grande mio amico, e pure iermattina fu io da lui a sollecitare uno colmo d’altare che mi fa. E era vero. Disse il Grasso: -Io vi priego che gli diciate che venghi insino qui ad uno suo amico che ha nome Matteo. Disse Filippo: -Volentieri; e andò via. Dipoi venne il giudice della Mercatantia con libro ove erano scritti il nome de’ prigioni e disse: -Qual è Matteo? El Grasso rispose: -Eccomi. In sull’ora del disinare venne uno garzonetto che avea un fiasco di vino e uno canestro di pane e altre cose da mangiare, e domanda di Matteo; el Grasso rispose e venne a lui. Disse quel garzonetto: -Tenete questa vivanda [da]i vostri fratelli. Disse el Grasso: -Gran merc a loro; e d“ loro per mia parte che io gli priego che venghino oggi insino qui a parlarmi. E colui rispose: -Volentieri; e partissi…. in sulle ventidua ore, e dipoi vennono due giovani e domandarono di Matteo. Disse uno de’ prigioni: -E’ dorme. – -Chiamatelo, e ditegli che sono qui e fratelli che gli vogliono parlare. Allora quello prigione chiamò: -O Matteo, e’ son qui e tuo’ fratelli che ti vogliano parlare. El Grasso si levò cos“ sonnacchioso per la malinconia e del disagio dello stare in prigione, che per avventura non era uso, e andò a loro; e giunto disse: -Siate i ben venuti. Rispose el maggiore: -El mi viene voglia di dire: tu sia el mal trovato, ch se’ pur giunto dove sempre abbiamo dubitato. Matteo, tu sai quanto la vita tua è stata scellerata, d’andare dirieto a’ ribaldi e al giuoco e a mille altre disonestà: per li modi tuoi facesti morire nostra madre inanzi al tempo. Ma come si sia, tu ci se’ fratello e siamo d’un padre e d’una madre; la carne ci stringe: se tu ci vuoi promettere d’attendere a fare bene, noi te ne cavereno. Allora cominciò il Grasso a lagrimare e disse: -Frategli miei cari, del male ch’io ho già fatto, e d’essere stato cagione della morte di quella poveretta di nostra madre, me ne incresce insino alI’anima, e promettovi, se mi cavate di qui, io attenderò a fare bene e non mi partirò da’ vostri comandamenti. Risposono i fratelli: -Noi siamo contenti pagare questi debiti e cavarti di qui, ma guarda attenderci quello ci prometti, ch nollo attendendo, se ti vedessimo in sulle forche non ti ricompreremmo un danaio. Rispose il Grasso: -Sicuramente io ve lo atte[nde]rò. Or quelli fratelli si partirono. Eccoti tornare quello garzonetto per lo [canestro del] pane e per lo fiasco. Disse il Grasso: -Eccolo; e non arrecare più niente, perché credo venire stasera a cena a casa. In sull’avemaria eccoti venire e fratelli, e trassono el Grasso di prigione; e missollo in mezzo e menarollo in una casa rimpetto a Santo Giorgio, e missollo in una camera terrena dove era uno buono fuoco, e dissono: -Statti qui insino a ora di cena. El Grasso rimase solo, e’ fratelli ferono vista d’avere a fare per casa e uscirono fuori di casa e andarono alla chiesa di Santo Giorgio, dove il dì avevano parlato con uno cappellano forestieri che v’era venuto a stare di pochi d“, e aveva[n]gli detto come avevano uno loro fratello, che aveva nome Matteo, e eragli entrato in capo una fantasia che gli è uno che si chiamava el Grasso legnaiuolo e non se gli potea cavare della testa, e pregorollo per Dio che volesse visitare e ingegnarsi di cavarlo di tal fantasia. Onde il prete avea loro risposto: -A vostra posta; e loro andarono per lui, e menarallo nella camera ove era el Grasso e disso[n]gli: -Matteo, tu sai quello che tu ci hai promesso, di volere attendere a fare bene per l’avvenire e pentirti di quello hai fatto per lo passato: e per tanto noi ti vogliamo pregare, acciò che Dio ti dia grazia acciò che tu ce lo possa attendere, che tu ti confessi; e però t’abbiamo menato questo venerabile padre, il quale lasceremo qui con teco. E detto questo uscirono di camera e lasciorono il prete con el Grasso. El prete si pose a sedere a lato al Grasso, e cominciollo a esaminare qual fusse stata la vita sua per lo passato. El Grasso cominciò a dire come era legnaiuolo e invero avea nome el Grasso, ma costoro volevano che fusse Matteo. El prete gli rispose: -Figliuol mio, cavati questa malinconia della testa e datti ad intendere d’essere Matteo como tu se’, e lascia andare questo maladetto Grasso Disse el Grasso: -Di quali peccati volete voi mi confessi, di quegli di Matteo o di quegli del Grasso? Disse el prete: -Di quegli di Matteo. Rispose il Grasso: -Questa è una nuova cosa che io sia il Grasso e convengami confessare e peccati di Matteo. El prete diceva: -Tu hai voglia d’impazzare, ché ogni uomo dice certo che tu se’ Matteo; e parmi, poi che tu non conosci te medesimo, una strana fantasia la tua a volere diventare un altro! El Grasso diceva: -Fatemi un servigio; poiché io sono Matteo, fatemi parlare al Grasso e sarò contento. Diceva il prete: -Questo non fa per te; lascia istare questo Grasso, e cavati questa fantasia del cervello. E infine tanto gli disse, che ‘l Grasso promisse al prete di non si dare più ad intendere d’essere se non Matteo. Chiamò il prete e fratelli: -Matteo vostro è qui, farà per l’avvenire ciò che voi vorrete, e sé“ sé’è avveduto dello errore suo e vuole essere Matteo e vostro fratello come egli è: e così ritificò el Grasso. Or fatto questo, el prete fece collazione con loro, e poi il prete si partì, e li detti gli feciono compagnia infino alla chiesa; e tornando a casa trovorono Filippo di ser Brunellesco, che diede loro una impolletta d’acqua addoppiata da fare dormire sei ore ferme. E andarossene e fratelli a casa a cena col Grasso, e nella cena dierono nel vino quella acqua alloppiata a bere al Grasso; e come ebbe beuta, cominciò el sonno a vincere el Grasso per modo che ‘nanzi che avesse cenato sé’adormentò a tavola. E adormentato che fu, Filippo venne qui con parecchi compagni con una bara e missonvi dentro el Grasso, e sé lo portorono a casa sua e missollo nel letto spogliato e colla sua cappellina in capo: e tolso[n]gli le chiavi della scarsella e andorono aprire la bottega, e quanti ferri v’erano trasseno del manico e rimiso[n]gli al contrario, e simile alle seghe e alle pialle, per modo che ogni cosa stava a ritroso: e fatto questo serrorono la bottega e rimisono le chiavi ‘ndella scarsella al Grasso,’e serrarono l’uscio dentro e con una scala uscirono per la finestra. El Grasso dormì presso a d“, e dipoi si destò e guardando per la camera, che v’era la lucerna accesa, apparvegli pure dov’egli [era e ripensando ciò che gli] era advenuto el d“ dinanzi, diceva in fra sé…. l’avemaria di Santa Liperata; e allora el Grasso si levò, e aperse la finestra di sala e vide la piazza di San Giovanni. Allora disse: -Laudato sia Iddio, ch’io sono pure il Grasso e sono in casa mia! E andossene giù e aperse la bottega, e volendo cominciare a lavorare, trovò tutti i ferri messi a ritroso. E allora cominciò a ‘mbizzarire in fra se medesimo dicendo: -Cred’i’ che la fortuna m’abbia tolto a ciancia. E stando in questo venne lì alla bottega quelli dua giovani che avevano [detto] d’essere suoi fratelli, e come giunsono, el Grasso li riconobbe. Allora dissono: -Bon dì, maestro. El Grasso rispose: -Bon d“ e buono anno. Dissono costoro: -Noi abbiamo uno nostro fratello che ha nome Matteo, e ègli entrato una pazzia nel capo che dice che ha nome il Grasso legnaiuolo, e iersera uscì di casa e non sappiamo dove si sia capitato: noi vi preghiamo, se vien qui, che gli caviate del capo che sia il Grasso e rimandatelo a casa, e sarenvi sempre ubligati. El Grasso si schifò, e gittò quelli ferri che racconciava per la bottega dicendo: -Andatevi con Dio, al nome del diavolo: che Grasso e che Matteo è questo? Per lo corpo di Dio, io mi vi leverò dinanzi. E serrò lo sportello della bottega e tolse il mantello, e andò verso l’abergo della Corona. E di rimpetto al detto albergo era la casa di messere Filippo Scolari, grande spano d’Ungheria, el quale, come sapete, era il maggior barone che avesse lo imperadore Sismondo; e in quel tempo era venuto in Firenze onorevolmente con più di trecento cavalli e molti signori e gentili uomini in compagnia. E nel tempo che stette in Firenze cercò di menar seco maestri di diversi arti con promettere loro grande provvisione; e in fra gli altri avea fatto richiedere questo Grasso, e lui avea risposto al tutto di non volere andare, ed erasi spiccato di questa pratica. Onde essendo lui in su questa bizzarria, vidde molti cavalli carichi di forzieri e di valigie, e udì uno che disse: -Che some son queste?, e uno famiglio rispose: -Sono dello Spano che va via stamane. Allora el Grasso si ricordò di quello che lo Spano l’avea richiesto e fatto da altri richiedere, e subito n’andò a casa lo Spano, e trovò che già era montato a cavallo; e andò da lui e, fattogli riverenzia, gli disse: -Signor mio, voi m’avete fatto richiedere se io voglio vevenire con voi in Ungheria, e io ho risposto di no. Al presente, in questo punto, se ‘l vi piace, io verrò con la S. V.: fatemi dare uno ronzino. E sanza dire niente a persona andossene in Ungheria; dove la fortuna gli fu sì favorevole, che vi diventò gran ricco. E Giovan Pesce nostro fiorentino, mercatante e abitante in Signa di Schiavonia, uomo degno di fede, lo trovò nel 1446 a Buda di Schiavonia, di cui sentì ordinatamente questa novella, dicendo che le beffi l’avevano fatto ricco.

[1] At the foot of the original text in Florentine dialect, found on Wikimedia.


[3] Also in ancient Rome, one became “aequites” through merit, not heritage: you had to be able to afford a horse for your military service. In the late republic, it was common to grant to particularly courageous soldiers a horse and the means to keep it.

[4] Acemoglu, D., Johnson, S. et Robinson, J.A., 2005. Institutions as a Fundamental Cause of Long-Run Growth. In: P. Aghion and S.N. Durlauf, eds., Handbook of Economic Growth, 1A ed. Elsevier B.V., pp.385–472

[5] R.D. 09.07.1939 n. 1238

[6] Art. 20 of R.D. 09.07.1939 n. 1238

[7] Art. 17 of R.D. 09.07.1939 n. 1238


[9] Such requirements are recognized by the eIDAS Regulation in Chapter III, for advanced electronic signatures, Art. 26.

[10] In the prank played on Manetto, the magistrates of the Guild who pretend to see Matteo instead of Manetto play an important role.

[11] Eco, Umberto (1983). The Name of the Rose. Harcourt. First English translation of Il nome della rosa, Collana Letteraria, Bompiani, 1980, ISBN 88-452-0705-6.

[12] The most known example of self sovereign identity are the Blockcerts.

[13] In Chapter 2 we have discussed how natural law evolved “out of nothing”, as a byproduct of scarcity and language.

And we have seen that all human and socio-economical relations have a distinctive evolutive pattern:

  • at first the relation is purely factual there are no rights and obligations, just a “social politeness”. Between “free men” bound only by ethics and not by the law, it was customary to make a spontaneous present and subsequently, with no whatsoever binding obligation, expect some sort of equivalent present in return;
  • this highly inefficient solution, whenever humans ceased to be hunter gatherers, has been discarded, for adopting the rule of law and the binding strictures of contracts. The free will is the only source of obligations, but its relevance is limited only to a few exceptional matters of socioeconomical relevance. All the remaining topics are still ruled by customary/ethical best practices;
  • subsequently the law sometimes supersedes the free exchange of will: not every agreement is binding. Certain agreements are unlawful or must be corrected by legal equity (think of usury, slave trade, etc.);
  • finally in some sectors (like labor and consumer protection) the law supersedes the free will. Since the middle ages, serfs, settlers, tenants were bound to agreements whose content was intangible, not only by them, but also by the landlords: it was the labor law of an agrarian society.

Today two vague assumptions underlay the policies dealing with the issues of a digital society. Legislator (and jurisprudence) assume that, of course, law applies to all human aspects of life, so it naturally applies also to digital social phenomena. Digital entrepreneurs (and engineers) are convinced that self-regulation is the best possible solution and that the law should only apply when (enlightened) self regulation fails.

Both assumptions are (vaguely) correct, but both miss the point.

As we have seen in Chapter 2, there is a hard question that must be answered: is a natural law possible in a digital society? If nature (or God) designed physical reality, there was a “trusted third party” that wrote all rules, that we assume that are per definition just, because they apply equally to all living (and inanimate) entities. But is natural law even possible, if we live in a digital environment, where everything is the consequence of planning, design and engineering?

If not, a digital society with “Chinese characteristics” will dominate: law and code will be written by the state and some state controlled/controlling technological behemoth and it will be all but impossible to change the status quo. It could be the end of history. There will be no escape: all the emergency exits will be sealed!

If a natural law in a digital society can be possible, then we must assume it will evolve naturally following the only evolutive pattern that we know.

Two things are clear:

  1. the owner/designer of a digital environment can design the system in a way that is ontologically incompatible with any law. That can happen and has happened already: slavery and serfdom were legal institutions, where the relation between the landlord and the slave/serf was designed around the protection of the property of the landlord and not around an equitable bilateral relation between two human beings. Slaves and serfs were a sub-product of property and they had to do what they had to do. If unhappy the landlord could only replace them: but he had no legal claim or recourse against them. Only two centuries ago, many argued that it was, impossible, impractical or economically unsustainable, to apply legal rules and contracts between workers (slaves/serfs) and employers (landlords) ;
  2. the only digital environment that is competitive with the currently prevailing “digital society with Chinese characteristics”, is a free, open, transparent, pluralistic digital environment, that is compatible with the values and rules of our democracies. If we carry on with proprietary “command and control” technologies (where profiles considered as true identities and no true identity is possible) and only occasionally try to reign-in the most egregious excesses with some “command and control” laws, we will fail and loose, because our values/laws are not matched by our technologies. The first step in this direction is to provide people with true digital identities.

[14]In this regard, the experience of Ethiopia in recent years is significant: the fact that over the past few decades it has been decided that identity documents should record the person’s ethnicity and tribe to which they belong. This has resulted in identity documents becoming instrumental to inter-ethnic feuds and the phenomena of ethnic cleansing

[15] Riley vs. California 573 U.S. 2014. e Carpenter v. United States, No. 16-402 585 US 2018.

[16] Go figure what would happen if the law would state that our homes are private-public spaces, open to any intruder… No wonder that computer security is still only a distant utopia.

[17] Tim Wu (2003). “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination”. Journal on Telecom and High Tech Law.


Published: Friday 01 November 2019
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