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A Horse of a Different Color

Author(s): 
Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
October 27, 2014

Cross-posted from Slate. 

In the early days of dot-com, the law found the Internet unsettling. That a buyer in one location could access the website of a seller in any other forced courts to revisit basic questions of jurisdiction and federalism. The potential to share and edit software and other digital objects introduced novel questions of ownership and control. In the mid-’90s, a movement arose among legal academics to address these and similar challenges. The central tensions of “cyberlaw” flow from the characteristics that distinguish the Internet from prior or constituent technology such as computers or phones.

Twenty years in, some early cyberlaw questions have seen a kind of resolution. Legislatures or courts have weighed in on a range of topics from intermediary liability to free speech. Vigorous debate continues—around “net neutrality,” for instance, and the impossible wages of privacy. But even here participants have at least a sense of the basic positions and arguments.

Law, in other words, is catching up. But technology has not stood still. The same military that funded the early network that became the Internet now funds robotics competitions. The same household-name Internet companies that brought us search and social networks have begun a large-scale pivot toward robotics and artificial intelligence. Amazon purchased the robotics company Kiva Systems to organize its warehouses. Google seems to be on a robotics and AI shopping spree. State and federal lawmakers now find themselves authoring laws around the domestic use of drones and issuing license plates to cars without drivers.

Serious and thoughtful people have wondered aloud whether robots will require any different treatment under the law than previous or constituent technologies such as computers. As science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow puts it: “For the life of me, I can’t figure out a legal principle that would apply to the robot that wouldn’t be useful for the computer (and vice versa).” For law professor Neil Richards and robotics professor Bill Smart, “[r]obots are, and for many years will remain, tools. They are sophisticated tools that use complex software, to be sure, but no different in essence than a hammer.”

Read the full piece at Slate.