Academic journal article Texas International Law Journal

The Cyberspace Separatism Fallacy

Academic journal article Texas International Law Journal

The Cyberspace Separatism Fallacy

Article excerpt

Future Codes: Essays in Advanced Computer Technology and the Law. By Curtis E.A. Karnow. Boston: Artech House, 1997.


Cyberspace is a hot place these days. This is true, of course, not literally-one does not feel heat when interacting with others in computer-mediated space-but instead figuratively, as virtual worlds are an increasingly popular destination. From much of the talk that has accompanied the legal wrangling over the emergence of cyberspace, though, one might be forgiven for thinking that cyberspace is a place with physical existence, where actual heat can be experienced. Many early adopters of the technology that enables cyberspace (or, if you prefer Neal Stephenson to William Gibson, "the metaverse")1 are devoted to a vision of a place with a separate existence from our mundane, everyday, physical world. They posit that because technology now allows human interaction on substantially different terms than before, the laws and rules that apply to human interaction in real space magically dissolve, or at least need to be radically reformulated.2

The question of whether cyberspace is a different place where rules developed in the physical world do not (or should not) apply has had little practical import thus far. Only those who have moved significant segments of their lives online have cared deeply about the right answer. But as the networked computer assumes a more central place in our everyday lives, the question whether-or, more precisely, how--cyberspace is different from our everyday world becomes ever more salient. As interaction through computermediated space becomes the norm instead of the exception, writing and discussion about it should try to root out key fallacies associated with earlier views. Interaction in cyberspace is critically and meaningfully different from interaction in "realspace," but those differences do not support the facile claim that cyberspace should be viewed as a separate jurisdiction, freed through technology from existing legal principles.

The ideas presented in Curtis Karnow's Future Codes: Essays in Advanced Computer Technology and the Law are meaningful and important, but they teeter on the edge of this problematic claim-what we might call the "separatism fallacy." The book also suffers from structural problems associated with turning a collection of essays into a book. In focusing on these problems, I do not mean to give short shrift to the intellectually interesting discussions that the individual essays provide. My critique is deliberately at the level of basic assumptions, because I think that is the only area where Karnow and I disagree. His presentations on particular topics are broad, and broad-minded, and offer some useful intellectual challenges. The book touches on many topics-legal reform, community-based standards, multimedia, international technology rights, virtual reality, data morphing, copyright and other limitations on web linking, information loss, encryption, artificial intelligence, computer crimes, the First Amendment's application in cyberspace, and the internal structure of computers-in an intelligent and engaging way. But Karnow's central theme, "that there are inherent problems in using computers, problems that are a function of the entire computing environment, including the humans [sic] designers and users,"3 and his application of that theme to particular issues is useful only to the point that it stays away from the separatism fallacy. He correctly recognizes special questions that computer technology poses for the law, but falters when he begins to assert that the computing environment is in serious need of separate, special rules that are relatively disconnected from what has come before.4


At the core of the essays in Future Codes are two claims that strike me as essentially correct. First is the idea that our legal system relies on community consensus around the rules that the law embodies. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.