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Category: International & Comparative Law

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Neutrality or Nirvana?

Trade law should not allow countries to insist on a regulatory nirvana in cyberspace unmatched in real space.

Reading Anupam Chander’s The Electronic Silk Road has been a real treat, and thanks to the folks at Concurring Opinions for organizing this terrific online symposium and including me. The book offers a wide-ranging and insightful discussion about global electronic commerce and its regulation and management. Anupam proposes general principles—rules of the road, essentially—to guide policymakers in this process of regulating and managing global e-commerce. The very first principle introduced in the book–the quotation above captures its essence–is that of technological neutrality: To keep cybertrade free and open, the online provision of a service should not be subject to more onerous regulatory burdens than its offline counterpart.

I wish to focus on this first principle. It seems a balanced and uncontroversial prescription. Why should local regulators saddle online service providers with heavier regulatory burdens than the local bricks-and-mortar competitors? The specter of protectionism lurks!

For me, Anupam’s technological neutrality principle is insufficiently ambitious with respect to the possibilities for effective regulation of e-commerce. Anupam’s concerns are free trade concerns, with which I am sympathetic. At the same time, though, e-commerce may actually be able to do better than brick and mortar on a number of important regulatory fronts, but technological neutrality gives up on those possibilities. It relieves the pressure to pursue more efficient regulation in cyberspace.

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The Life of Pi in the Electronic Silk Road

The Life of Pi presents an epic journey that a boy survives by maximizing spiritual strength in the most adverse circumstances. Called Pi, the boy harnesses curiosity, spirituality, and love to go through his adventurous “international” journeys through religions, cultures, and most notably nature with a stormy ocean.

In his new book The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World in Commerce, Anupam Chander also narrates an epic journey that we must embark on in the digital age. Skillfully written with elegant prose, the book explores complex challenges posed by culture, politics, and technology associated with trade in information services.

As a boundless venue hosting trade in services, cyberspace turns out to be the ocean that Pi crossed. According to Anupam, it has enormous barriers blocking the freedom of trading information services in the global context. Culture matters. While some information services are totally fine in western societies, they may be seen as hostile to Islamic beliefs. Politics matters. It has resulted in information suppression in certain authoritarian countries. Technology matters. It facilitates the growth of information services. But it has been used to block trade in information services.

The great firewalls that exist in the electronic silk road best illustrate the difficulty of promoting trade in information services. As mighty as the storm and waves that Pi suffered on the ocean, they are utilized by repressive regimes to monitor, filter, and even shut down the Internet. In 2010 Google withdrew its operations from mainland China. This incident, as I understand from reading Anupam’s book, is a shipwreck as serious as the one that Pi remembers as the darkest day of his life. But it is also a shipwreck similar to the one that Pi regards as a new journey into knowing himself, other beings with him, and the world or nature at large.

On the one hand, Google’s retreat sounded the loudest alarm to the protection of freedom of information in repressive regimes. Nearly 1.3 billion Chinese citizens as well as many other fellow human beings are subject to cyberspace information suppression by authoritarian regimes. As Anupam bluntly reminds us, “[w]hen allied with willing Internet service providers, websites, software providers, and financial intermediaries, a government can gain an omniscience heretofore unknown.” In the digital age, it is the cross-border information services that supply state-of-the-art technologies and abundant financial resources to the authoritarian regimes.

On the other hand, the Google incident calls for immediate and long-term interventions in order to reshape cyberspace as a sphere free of uncivilized surveillance. This journey to information freedom is, indeed, as arduous as the one that Pi experienced across the ocean and continents. Religion, language, imagination, dignity, and even capacity for love all play an important part contributing to Pi’s triumph. The same applies to the journey toward information freedom. After all, people subject to information suppression live with (or without) different religions and speak different languages. Therefore, the capacity for a concerted effort to empower human dignity and love to address information suppression varies significantly across the world. Toward the end of book, Anupam hints that the World Trade Organization, an international institution that governs global trade both in goods and services, might be of little help to resolve this issue. Without any competent international organizations charting the map, the journey to the heaven of information freedom is destined to be a long and tricky adventure.

Reading The Electronic Silk Road together with The Life of Pi prompted me to think about issues that go beyond information suppression existing in repressive regimes. I realized that there are two major issues looming large in the digital age. While we enjoy the unprecedented freedom, convenience, and entertainment that digital technology can bring to us, we must ponder the dark side of digital technology and how the law should tackle it.

First and foremost, we can identify and understand the ways in which the ubiquity of information services can spawn profound problems. The Life of Pi conveys problems of this kind: hostility toward another religion and culture; indifference to other human beings deemed as inferior; and unwillingness to reciprocate others’ good deeds (Richard Parker, the tiger who has a human name, runs into the nearby jungle without a glance back). All these problems remain for Pi, although he has miraculously made it to shore. Online information services have caused similar problems. For example, the websites hosting information services are rife with fraud. Shortly after I posted an advertisement on Craigslist for subleasing my apartment last fall, I received several emails through which the senders attempted to persuade me to deposit money into their bank accounts before they took over the lease. After doing a bit research about online fraud, I could not help asking myself why there are so many people who choose fraud as their jobs.

Thus, digital technology is a double-edged sword. It promotes free flow of information and provides the social glue to bind many people together to wage revolutions against repressive regimes (e.g., the Jasmine Revolution). However, it also wields the power to alienate many people from the social network of direct interactions, leaving them increasingly alone in their spaces of egoism. Today, the majority of people on the subway spend much of their time using their smartphones or tablets. They appear in the tangible public spaces, but they confine themselves to those machines connected with the Internet, enjoying the private fun of checking Facebook or Twitter, playing electronic games, reading news, shopping online, or watching YouTube videos. Digital technology has facilitated widespread use of emails and text messages, further reducing the occasions for face-to-face conversations, greetings, or smiles. Thus, these trends raise the question whether digital technology promotes engagement with others or reinforces the individual quest for solitude. A new book by Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, has a comprehensive and nuanced discussion about this tangled issue.

How should the law tackle the double-edged nature of digital technology? Law is critically important in this regard, because it informs people of what they can and cannot do. Anupam teaches us that core to the law regulating trade mediated via cyberspace is the protection of “the right of individuals to share and receive information.” This core right prioritizes the “delivery and consumption” of information “regardless of frontiers” (p.202). His novel proposal that combines globalization together with harmonization of laws serves the full realization of this right.

But can celebration of the individual right to share and receive information offer means by which we can deal with the alienating effect of digital technology? In other words, does the language of rights really increase the consciousness of sharing information as it purports to? To some extent, it does. Anupam proves this with many vivid examples, particularly the Jasmine Revolution in which sharing information about freedom and democracy was the focal point. But as I discussed earlier and others’ works have proven, digital technology has also driven an increasing number of people to withdraw from traditional means of communication and confine themselves to an egoistic world of isolation.

I believe the language of responsibility can play a big part in dealing with this problem. In my recent article entitled Copyright and Responsibility, I point out that law “regulates human affairs through rules that require people to enjoy their freedoms and exercise their rights in responsible ways.” Responsibilities always come together with rights. Without the infusion with responsibilities, rights are meaningless. Persons are not only individuals but also social members of communities, countries, and the whole world. As social members, persons must not single-mindedly pursue only the realization of their individual rights. Rather, they should also constantly ask what responsibilities they should take on and how they can fulfill them in their social membership.

Anupam does mention the importance of responsibility. For example, he urges that Internet service providers follow the “Do No Evil” responsibility, which requires them not to collaborate with repressive regimes that suppress the free flow of information. Indeed, this responsibility is crucial. But should we also ask Internet service providers to take on more responsibilities to encourage people to spend slightly less time using computers, smartphones, or tablets and slightly more time interacting with others in various ways? In this sense, Internet service providers may have a responsibility to cultivate a healthy environment and culture for human interactions. A follow-up question is whether individuals should have the responsibility to spend slightly more time paying attention to others and their communities via computers, smartphones, or tablets.

Both The Life of Pi and The Electronic Silk Road prompt me to think more about the problems in the human world. The Life of Pi teaches me how a person can grow and mature through overcoming tough challenges and even evils. Anupam’s The Electronic Silk Road teaches me how globalized human societies can continue to flourish through overcoming the obstacles caused by national boundaries and the self-centered energy embedded in each human being. Both The Life of Pi and The Electronic Silk Road celebrate the beauty of human spirituality and its power to deter selfishness and even evil.

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Navigating The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce

In The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce, Anupam Chander has helped to illuminate any number of debates that surround the growing trade in online information services (a phenomenon that he calls “net-work”).  The range of legal and political issues implicated by trade in online information services is vast and some are quite arcane.  Yet, Chander brings them together beautifully in a wonderfully accessible book that is very readable without being simplistic.  He does not purport to offer a single solution to the challenges of trade in online information services.  (Indeed, I would be suspicious of anyone hawking a single solution to what is an incredibly complex problem.)  Instead, he suggests a framework for recalibrating the balance between local and international norms (and institutions) in ways that take account of the special features of online commerce (and online social interactions, for Chander is continually alert to the ways that trade and commerce can positively contribute to broader social policy objectives).  Chander recognises that to understand the complexity of regulating (or de-regulating) the provision of online services, one has to take account of any number of institutions or devices: thus he dissects rules on conflicts of law (jurisdiction, choice of law, and recognition and enforcement of judgments), and international economic law (most notably GATS), while also taking due account of private ordering by large online players and the global power of consumer pressure.  He paints a messy picture, but it is messy because it is rich.  One has first to accept that messiness and complexity, in order to address the problems of activity that (arguably) simultaneously occurs nowhere and everywhere.

Perhaps the biggest single contribution that Chander makes is to suggest that these disparate legal devices can be considered through a single analytical framework, which he develops using a number of core propositions and concepts.  The most important of these, which I discuss below, is the concept of “glocalisation” (not new, but adopted and adapted by Chander) and harmonisation (also not new, of course).  The framework does not suggest any concrete solutions (with a couple of exceptions).  But that would be too much to expect.  Nor will it resolve some of the most acute tensions between international norms and local (national) sovereignty.  But that would be too much to ask.  It does ask us to think differently about how to address those tensions.

It is the interaction of glocalisation and harmonisation that is at the heart of the book, and on which I will focus my post.  The core proposition that Chander advances is “Harmonise where possible, and glocalize where necessary.”  (p 191).  By this proposition, I read (based on his uses throughout the book rather than how I would use the terms, as discussed below) to mean that we should strive for global norms so as to take advantage of the efficiencies (and other social benefits) of universalization, but allow local (mostly national) norms to apply where important to preserve important values on which local communities may disagree (provided such values are broadly consistent with fundamental international norms, such as human rights commitments).  In some respects, this is not a radical proposition.  Most of international law consists of calibrating the balance between the national sovereignty and international norms.

However, in two senses Chander’s proposal is quite radical.First, he recognises this tension pervades any number of legal rules and institutions, not just public international law.  Thus, he seeks to apply his basic tenet to conflicts rules, as well as rules that facilitate global transactions.  This is radical insofar as it is not the starting point for conventional private law analysis generally.  Chander is not alone. 

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Opportunities and Roadblocks Along the Electronic Silk Road

977574_288606077943048_524618202_oLast week, Foreign Affairs posted a note about my book, The Electronic Silk Road, on its Facebook page. In the comments, some clever wag asked, “Didn’t the FBI shut this down a few weeks ago?” In other venues as well, as I have shared portions of my book across the web, individuals across the world have written back, sometimes applauding and at other times challenging my claims. My writing itself has journed across the world–when I adapted part of a chapter as “How Censorship Hurts Chinese Internet Companies” for The Atlantic, the China Daily republished it. The Financial Times published its review of the book in both English and Chinese.

International trade was involved in even these posts. Much of this activity involved websites—from Facebook, to The Atlantic, and the Financial Times, each of them earning revenue in part from cross-border advertising (even the government-owned China Daily is apparently under pressure to increase advertising) . In the second quarter of 2013, for example, Facebook earned the majority of its revenues outside the United States–$995 million out of a total of $1,813 million, or 55 percent of revenues.

But this trade also brought communication—with ideas and critiques circulated around the world.  The old silk roads similarly were passages not only for goods, but knowledge. They helped shape our world, not only materially, but spiritually, just as the mix of commerce and communication on the Electronic Silk Road will reshape the world to come.

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UCLA Law Review Vol. 61, Discourse

Volume 61, Discourse Discourse

Fighting Unfair Credit Reports: A Proposal to Give Consumers More Power to Enforce the Fair Credit Reporting Act Jeffrey Bils 226
A Legal “Red Line”? Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons in Civil Conflict Jillian Blake & Aqsa Mahmud 244
Alleyne v. United States, Age as an Element, and the Retroactivity of Miller v. Alabama Beth Colgan TBD
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Undocumented Migrants and the Failures of Universal Individualism

In recent years, advocates and scholars have made increasing efforts to situate undocumented migrants within the human rights framework. But a closer look at international human rights law reveals that it is extremely limited in its protections of the undocumented.  My draft article, Undocumented Migrants and the Failures of Universal Individualism, takes that failure as a starting point to launch a critique of the universal individualist project that characterizes the current human rights system. It then catalogues the protections available to undocumented migrants international human rights law, which are far fewer than often assumed. The paper demonstrates through a detailed analysis of relevant law that the human rights framework contains significant conceptual gaps when it comes to the undocumented. It concludes by stepping away from human rights law and offering a radically new approach to protecting undocumented migrants and other vulnerable populations.

This paper advances one of the first serious critiques of international human rights law. Though legal scholars have presented critical perspectives on domestic law for over thirty years, few academics have applied these critical methods to international law. The dearth of critical scholarship on international human rights law in particular is striking.   This draft article begins to fill that gap by exploring the politics and power interests that underlie international human rights law. It describes the limitations of the universal individualist approach to human rights, highlighting the ways in which false universalisms can obscure dominant power structures.

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Putin Gays on the Agenda

When I hear about American supporters the new Russian homophobic legislation (or, for that matter, about President Putin and his aides who initiated such crazy legislation, which prohibits, among other things, even expressing tolerance towards LGBTs), I can’t help but recall a New York Time article from last year titled Homophobic? Maybe You’re Gay, which claimed that there is “empirical evidence of a connection between homophobia and suppressed same-sex desire.”

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Snowden’s asylum case: Be careful what you ask for

According to recwhistleent news reports, Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who leaked documents revealing the scope of the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, has applied for political asylum in at least twenty-one countries.  Though his applications have not been made public, Snowden has received at least three offers of asylum: from Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.  The proffered grounds for these asylum grants have varied from Bolivian President Evo Morales, who presented it as a “fair protest” for preventing his presidential airplane from entering the airspace of several European countries; to Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who saw a need to protect “the young American” against “persecution from the empire“; to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who remained vague on the details.

None of these explanations bears much relation to international refugee law, which, though rarely an arm’s length from politics, does require some rigorous legal analysis.  To be fair, each country has the right to grant asylum based on their own domestic law, which may be more generous than international refugee law standards.  (Though the terms “asylum” and “refugee status” are often used interchangeably, in the United States, the former technically refers to domestic law and the latter to international law.)  But given the legitimacy that the international legal standards might afford a claim like Snowden’s, it’s worth attempting a more thorough analysis of his asylum claim.

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Volume 60, Issue 5 (June 2013)

Volume 60, Issue 5 (June 2013)
Articles

First Amendment Constraints on Copyright After Golan v. Holder Neil Weinstock Netanel 1082
Intraracial Diversity Devon W. Carbado 1130
When to Overthrow your Government: The Right to Resist in the World’s Constitutions Ginsburg et al. 1184
Interbank Discipline Kathryn Judge 1262

Comments

A Proposal for U.S. Implementation of the Vienna Convention’s Consular Notification Requirement Nicole M. Howell 1324
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The Egyptian Constitution

Morsi_EgiptoThis is the first of a series of posts co-authored with Professor Mohamed Abdelaal (of Alexandria University) on the status of constitutional reform in Egypt.  Massive protests are planned on June 30 to mark the first anniversary of President Mohamed Morsi’s inauguration and to express anger at the way in which the new Egyptian Constitution was drafted and at what the Constitution says.

Dissatisfaction over the 2012 Constitution can be traced back to the moment when a Constituent Assembly was elected by Parliament in summer 2012 to draft a new constitution after the 2011 Revolution. The Assembly, which was composed of 100 members, was heavily dominated by Islamists. 24 out of the 39 parliamentary seats were filled by Islamic parties and 5 of the independent seats were reserved for Al-Azhar Institute, a prominent Islamic institute in Egypt.  Furthermore, many of the independent members were known sympathizers of the Islamic camp.  Accordingly, the drafting process witnessed several boycotts from the liberal bloc and was seen by many political figures as illegitimate.  In a subsequent ratification referendum, the Constitution was approved by only 63.8% with a turnout of only 33%, which was not a decisive endorsement. It was not only the suspected drafting process that made many Egyptians not to cheer the new constitution; however, it is also its content, which gives religious leaders a role in judging the validity of legislation, grants broad powers to the president without making him accountable for his misconduct, and puts the independence of the judiciary in jeopardy.  We will have more to say about these provisions in our other posts.