The Uncertainty of Tomorrow

Can law keep pace with technology?

The Uncertainty of Tomorrow

Technology moves quickly, and law moves slowly. It’s a conundrum that every technology lawyer is familiar with. Our clients push into the unknown daily, and often come up against (or blow right through) the established legal boundaries. And yet the law – statutory, common law and civil – continues to apply no matter the new and novel application of technology on a business practice.

As more and more businesses move their offerings into a variety of digital realms, “applicable law” becomes an increasingly amorphous concept. The laws of the land, whether brought into force by legislative bodies, or by judgments in court, are based on the three-dimensional world, bound by borders. International treaties can act to extend these boundaries into a larger aggregate of jurisdictions, but will still be bound by the same dimensional limitations. However, the digital realm of the Internet – and its sinister twin, the Dark Web – exist conceptually in an extradimensional space.

None of this is to suggest that jurisdictional laws cease to apply. Today, everything online is still tied to meatspace, through servers, transmission networks, and of course the human beings in control of the whole set-up. But what happens tomorrow when that isn’t necessarily the case?

Take for example the case of websites which service peer-to-peer file sharing of pirated music, movies, television, software and various other forms of intellectual property via the BitTorrent protocol. One of the most (in)famous of these piracy websites is The Pirate Bay, which has faced legal challenges throughout its 14-year history. However, while legal challenges have often resulted in the seizure of The Pirate Bay’s servers, cancellation of domain names, or blocking of URLs by ISPs within a certain country, so far workarounds have never been long in coming. New servers can be acquired, new domains registered, new mirror sites uploaded, and new Virtual Private Network’s accessed to circumvent jurisdictionally limited URL-blocking.

Frustrating as this game of legal whack-a-mole surely is for opponents of websites like The Pirate Bay, it demonstrates that jurisdictional laws are applicable, but have limited efficacy against technology, which is naturally unaffected by jurisdictional bounds.

Now consider tomorrow. Two of the key technologies currently being touted as the next big thing are blockchain and artificial intelligence (or AI). Blockchain – most commonly known as the backbone of Bitcoin and other nascent cryptocurrencies – is a distributed computing system, which based on its structure allows for decentralized validation. Smart contracts utilizing blockchain networks are already being used to provide certainty in online transactions, delivery logistics, and other fields. AI is currently used in everything from medical diagnostics to self-driving cars to legal due diligence reviews.

Will someone figure out a way to use blockchain validation ledgers and AI analysis to create new digital locks to protect intellectual property from piracy? Almost certainly. Will someone else use a blockchain network and AI gatekeepers to set up an impenetrable, unblockable pirate’s
den? Inevitably.

The question that remains is what role will the law play in tomorrow’s world? What happens once a decentralized, peer-to-peer network, which is self-sustaining, self-replicating and powered by next generation artificial intelligence is launched, and no controllable group of people can be compelled to take it down? Unlike in so many sci-fi movies, the hive mind can’t be defeated by destroying some central processor, as that does not exist in a decentralized network. Law will still apply, but it’s up to us to determine how.