Is the digital world rising above the law?

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I wrote this for another site but in the end it wasn’t used so I thought I might as well stick it on here for you lovely people.

The idea goes that no one person is above the law. A simple concept, but with the evolution of the digital world (and I’m not just referencing Digimon here) the notion is getting less and less tangible. Just like our criminals.

Last month saw the release of The Random Darknet Shopper, a robot who went to robo-jail after purchasing of ecstasy from the darknet. This digital Pablo Escobar is the handiwork of Swiss artists Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smolijo, who created the bot as part of their art show. Given $100 a week in bitcoin, the little robot was sent into the depths of Darknet (a place not really fit for human exploration) and allowed to make random dubious purchases. The fruits of this shopping spree included not only some ecstasy pills but a fake passport, Diesel jeans, 200 Chesterfield cigarettes, and a baseball cap fitted with a hidden camera.

The project was created in order to mirror the illegal activities that persist throughout the internet, questioning how our society should be dealing with spaces such as Darknet markets. However, art or no, a real crime was committed. In the words of the artists: “We are the legal owner of the drugs – we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code.”

Although Weisskopf and Smolijo admit responsibility for their bot, it seems that our laws as they are now may not be up to date in how to handle such misdemeanors. Criminal law usually upholds that there needs to be an “intending mind” present for a crime to be prosecuted. Therefore, if a bot was set to only buy items at random, could the creator reasonably be held responsible for the purchase of chance illegal items?

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In the case of The Random Darknet Shopper, such a case was never presented as the robot was cleared of all charges. The artists’ site states that “the possession of Ecstasy was indeed a reasonable means for the purpose of sparking public debate about questions related to the exhibition. The public prosecution also asserts that the overweighing interest in the questions raised by the art work «Random Darknet Shopper» justify the exhibition of the drugs as artefacts”.

Hurray for art, but this still leaves a lot of open-ended questions on how UK and global laws will deal with the emergence of robotic and digital loopholes. Loopholes such as the ones Holograms for Freedom have been recently taking advantage of.

Last month, thousands of holograms appeared outside of Madrid’s parliament buildings in protest to new ‘gagging laws’. The rightwing agenda of the current government has recently been gaining global attention, as new laws were introduced to prohibit certain forms of protest. These restrictions apply to any protest that occurs outside of government buildings or key pieces of infrastructure (such as nuclear power plants or refineries). Those who ignore these new rules can be landed with fines of up to €600,000.

But can you punish someone who isn’t technically there?

Reportedly, nearly 18,000 people signed up to Holograms por la Liberdad’s protest, by recording themselves on webcam. From these around 2000 ghostly holograms were created to march against the Spanish government, in a space that those in charge declared out of bounds. If those involved are able to avoid prosecution, the protest goes to show the ability that the digital world still has to transcend our Earthly regulations. Kind of like a holographic middle-finger to the powers that be.

Both of these cases offer us viewpoints into the pros and cons of an under-regulated cyber sphere. The (partially) lawless realms of our computers can offer us the potential to escape restraints in the physical world. But, like most things, the potential for either good or evil still lies in the hands of those behind the power button.

How long such power exists for has yet to be calculated.

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