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Governance is nothing but the implementation of Acts and rules that are made by the people for themselves. At present, this is done by the government’s publishing of rules in a human readable format. These rules are made for human consumption, to be read, understood and to be converted into logic for writing software. Let us consider an example. A government rule reads: “Footwear having a retail sale price not exceeding 1,000 per pair attracts a rate of GST of 5%." In the present scenario, footwear businesses across the country convert this human readable government rule into a machine readable ‘If ‘loop and use it in their sales systems. The problem with this is, this conversion is prone to error, subjectivity and mistranslation. It may not be fully apparent with this simple ‘If’ loop example here, but as the rules get complex, it leads to significant translation gap and consequent legal disputes. Instead of this, what if the government itself publishes its rules in the form of logic, in addition to the natural language? It will significantly reduce interpretation errors, avoidable legal tangles and provide uniform intended reading of the rules for all parties. This conversion of rules from natural language to machine readable format is called “Rules as Code", or RaC.

The old model of making rules and publishing them in a pdf format on a static website doesn’t really work well with the present day’s IoT (Internet of Things) enabled world. For example, you personally don’t diagnose what’s wrong with your washing machine anymore. The new smart washing machine diagnoses itself and sends a report to the technician over the internet. As more and more data gets consumed by connected devices, interaction of systems with the government becomes commonplace and that’s why the rule-making procedure of the government is required to update itself. With the advent of blockchain, we are already seeing examples of commercial contracts between private parties becoming smart, and getting executed in code. Governance is also nothing but a contract between private persons or businesses and the government specifying a set of definitive rules. Here, too, these contracts need to become smart.

In some areas of governance, RaC is already being practised. Take the income tax portal for example. Each year, the portal updates itself with the logical version of the amendments to the Income Tax Act. As we don’t file paper-based returns anymore, it is imperative that the portal itself understands the changes in rules every year and does the tax calculation for us with given inputs. However, such codifying may not have taken place in all the departments of the government.

Not all rules are suitable for RaC. For example, it can be readily deployed for tax rules which have a degree of algorithm in-built, but not for something like the rules against hate speech, as they require a certain degree of human judgment. However, in today’s digital world, even such rules are finally deduced to precise programmable logic. Governments across the world are experimenting with RaC as a way to bring uniformity, certainty to their regulations. New Zealand is doing it through their initiative called Better Rules. UK publishes its Acts in XML format which is a structured language for computers to interpret data. In India, too, Nyaaya, an open access, digital resource platform, made some efforts for converting our laws into Akoma Ntoso, a globally recognized XML based format specially designed for legal documents. But the initiative to make machine readable rules has to come from the government itself. RaC is not just conversion of rule into algorithms. It requires rethinking the entire process behind government rulemaking, to think of them as digital products and services right from their conception.

However, since the first British India Law Code in 1772, we have inherited quadruple negatives, peculiar expressions such as ‘notwithstanding’ in our laws and adopted specific legalese with an intent to provide certainty and consistency. It will take significant effort to rework all that into machine consumable format ready for use in the digital age. Laws and rules should be fair and simple to be understood by even an ordinary citizen.

I’ll leave you with an actual government rule, to judge whether it’s readable for machines, and also maybe humans.

Notwithstanding anything contained in these rules, the registered person shall not use the amount available in electronic credit ledger to discharge his liability towards output tax in excess of 99%. of such tax liability, in cases where the value of taxable supply other than exempt supply and zero-rated supply, in a month exceeds fifty lakh rupees.

Mahesh Singarapu is an Indian Revenue Service officer and deputy director in the Enforcement Directorate. Views are personal.

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