Monday, September 02, 2019

Lawyers in Space?

A recent Washington Post article highlights what would normally be a humdrum domestic dispute alleging identity theft.  The unusual feature of the dispute is that the party who allegedly accessed a bank account without permission did it from the International Space Station, and thus may have committed the first legally recognized crime in space.

Anywhere humans go, the lawyers can't be far behind.  While Shakespeare probably got a laugh in his play Henry VI when the criminal type Dick the Butcher said, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the laywers," the context was not a sober discussion of how to make a better society.  Dick and his rebel friends were imagining a fantasy world made to their liking, where all the beer barrels would be huge, all the prices low, and naturally, there wouldn't be any lawyers to get people like them into trouble.

Law-abiding citizens need have no fear of ordinate laws, and so it's only right that there are some treaties and international agreements that govern humans and human-made artifacts in space. 

The foundational agreement is something called the Outer Space Treaty, which over 100 countries have signed, including every nation that is currently capable of orbiting hardware in space.  Implemented in 1967, its most prominent theme is that space is for peaceful uses only.  It therefore prohibits keeping nuclear weapons in space.  It also forbids any country from claiming sovereignty over any part of outer space, including any celestial body.  So when the U. S. planted its flag on the moon, it was just a symbolic gesture, not the first step in creating a fifty-first state with zero population.

Right now, there are companies making quite serious plans to do space mining, build space hotels, and engage in other profit-making activity that would involve substantial amounts of investment of both hardware and human capital.  There's a concern that the Outer Space Treaty is silent on the question of individual or corporate ownership of space property, and unless we get more specific on what the rules are, such developments may be stifled.

I don't see any critical problem here, because we have abundant precedents in a similar situation:  the international laws governing ocean-going vessels.  The Disney Company puts millions of dollars into what amounts to floating hotels, and they quite happily manage to cope with the fact that while they own the ship, it travels in international waters and docks at various ports owned by other countries.  Of course, there are hundreds of years of tradition bound up in the law of the sea, and the same isn't true of space law.  But the fact that ocean-going commerce goes on quite smoothly for the most part shows such things can be done, and so that doesn't concern me at all.

What could throw the whole situation into doubt is if somebody finds a fantastically lucrative space-based enterprise.  Diamonds on the moon sounds like something that Edgar Rice Burroughs would cook up, but there are quite serious organizations out there planning to do things like mining asteroids.  And depending on what they find, we might see something like the rush of the Old World explorers to the New World, where they in fact did discover gold.  Like most naive fantasies, that discovery didn't work out quite as nicely as the explorers hoped, what with the abysmal treatment of Native Americans and the disastrous inflation that the introduction of huge amounts of gold caused in the economies of Europe. 

It's hard to imagine something similar happening as a result of a space-based discovery, but stranger things have happened.  The optimist in me, as well as numbers of Silicon Valley types who seem to think that space colonization is not only possible, but inevitable and represents the last best hope of humanity, would like to see the future of space exploration and settlement as another chance for us to get some things right.  After all, something like that was the motivation for many Europeans to make the arduous journey to the New World where unknown hardships awaited them.  Overall I'm glad they did, or else I would not have the opportunity to live in Central Texas today.

But the identity-theft case in the International Space Station reminds us that no matter what idealistic plans we make, we will take all our mental and behavioral baggage with us wherever we go.  That is why we will always need lawyers, whether in San Marcos or a moon base.  Because a certain number of us will misbehave beyond the boundaries that ordinary people around us can deal with, and so the law will have to get involved.  Right now, all the parties to the identity-theft dispute turned out to be U. S. citizens, so U. S. law applies.  But in the future, when space colonies (for lack of a better phrase) may want to set up their own independent governments, things may get considerably more complicated.  And complications mean lawyers.

One thing I haven't mentioned is the question of militarization in space.  President Trump recently announced the establishment of a Space Command, which is apparently a kind of umbrella under which the space activities of the various branches of the military will be gathered.  While the Outer Space Treaty prohibits "weapons of mass destruction" in space, it does nothing to stop nations from testing weapons or placing military personnel in space. 

It is perhaps inevitable that rivalries on the ground will end up being played out in space as well.  But we can hope that for the near future, anyway, the need for lawyers and law in space will be limited to minor issues such as the identity-theft case, and that we can view space as a place where for the time being, people can just get along.  But if they don't, I'm sure
lawyers will find a way to get involved.

Sources:  Deanna Paul's article "Space:  The Final Legal Frontier" appeared on Aug. 31 on the Washington Post website at  I also referred to Wikipedia articles on the Outer Space Treaty and "Let's kill all the lawyers." 

No comments:

Post a Comment