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How the Internet lets you choose your laws
And how it's disrupting nation-states
Note : this article is the 9th in a series on the disruption of nation-states by the Internet.
Here are the fourteen articles in the series:
Another way in which the Internet and globalization are disrupting laws is that when you step out of the cocoon of mono-countrism to flap your multi-country wings, you discover an extraordinary new ability: you can choose your laws.
What do I mean by that?
Let's say you wanted to smoke a cannabis joint in 2015. Here were the consequences if the police caught you doing it (with just that joint on you) depending on the country you were in:
Dubai: a minimum of 4 years' imprisonment, a hefty fine, and expulsion from the country for life once your sentence has been served.
A European country where cannabis is not yet legalized: in the worst case, a little time at the station and a fine, in the majority of cases, a simple confiscation.
In the (increasingly numerous) countries that have legalized this practice: treat yourself! And thank you for contributing to the country's economy.
Do you understand what I mean now?
Whatever you want to do, chances are there's at least one country in the world that allows it.
Want to drive at 200 km/h (124 miles per hour) on the freeway? It's forbidden in almost all countries, but not on many stretches of freeway in Germany1 .
Want to try hallucinogenic drugs for a spiritual experience? It's illegal in most places, but not in Peru, Mexico and Brazil, where ayahuasca is widely used in traditional rituals.
Want to drink alcohol in public? It's illegal in some Muslim and even Western countries, but perfectly acceptable in countries like Spain, where people often enjoy a glass of wine outdoors.
Would you like to marry a person of the same sex? While this is now legal in many countries, including the USA, Canada and many European countries, it remains forbidden in others, including many African countries and the Middle East.
Do you want to be free to choose your main health insurance provider from among the private players on the market, rather than being obliged to join your country's compulsory health system? This is forbidden in France, and punishable by heavy fines and even prison sentences2 , whereas it is legal and even compulsory in Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates, for example.
Would you like to practice voluntary euthanasia? At the time of writing, there are 8 countries in which it is legal: the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Colombia, Canada, Spain, New Zealand and Portugal, as well as all the states of Australia (but not certain territories).
Do you want to own a firearm to protect yourself? In the United States, the right to own a gun is protected by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, while in Japan, gun ownership is strictly regulated and generally prohibited.
Would you like to educate your children at home (homeschooling)? In the USA, the UK and several other countries, it's perfectly legal, whereas in Germany, for example, homeschooling is illegal and can result in fines or even prison sentences3 .
Do you want to live in polygamy? Although it's illegal in most Western countries, in some African and Middle Eastern countries polygamy is perfectly legal and accepted.
Would you like to practice nudism in public? In many countries, you could be fined for indecent exposure, but in some places, such as certain beaches in France and Spain, nudism is accepted and even encouraged.
Etc. Etc. I could give many more examples.
You'll notice that some of the possibilities probably don't seem moral to you, and that's the point: thanks to the legal and moral differences between countries, you don't have to be totally subject to other people's morality either.
Many practices in history have been accepted by the majority, then not, then again, in cycles that sometimes repeat themselves ad infinitum: homosexuality is an excellent example, some forms of which were considered so normal in parts of Greek and Roman antiquity that it wasn't even a subject.
Then, when Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, this began to change, and homosexuality was harshly condemned, although there may have been sporadic exceptions throughout the Middle Ages, depending on the place and time. And today, of course, it's much more accepted in the West.
So morals and laws are not spread homogeneously 1) temporally, but also 2) geographically, and that's a good thing: if you're unlucky enough to be born in a period of the cycle in which what you want to do is illegal, you can move geographically, failing to move in time4 , to put yourself in the right part of the cycle.
It's also a fundamental disruption: while this possibility has always existed, as we've seen with examples of exiles, the ease of travel we have today with airplanes and other modern means of locomotion, makes being able to choose the laws that suit us extremely accessible.
Native Internet companies are thus far freer than most to choose the physical location that offers them the best "package" of welcoming laws, as Google and Facebook have long been doing. But this freedom is also available at the individual level, and it's even truer for those who are natively "Internet-first", and who thanks to it can free themselves from the tyranny of location.
You can use this ability temporarily (going to a country where smoking cannabis is legal, for a few days) or permanently (you're gay and not allowed to be openly gay in your country, so you move to a country where you don't have to hide).
The "package" of laws will increasingly be one of the criteria that digital nomads will look at when choosing the country in which to set up their base, among other criteria: does this country have a good climate, a reasonable cost of living, taxes at a fair rate, offers good services, and has laws that allow us to do the things that are important to us?
This growing and increasingly-used possibility will have the effect that more and more people will question the "sacredness" of laws, and see them for what they are: human inventions that are magically valid on one side of the border, but not on the other, which will have the effect of partly eroding the legitimacy of governments and these laws.
This also means that governments will be increasingly restricted in their ability to implement unpopular laws, or laws that run counter to global trends: they will have the effect of driving a growing proportion of the population abroad.
For example, the UAE (and therefore Dubai) have particularly relaxed their laws on cannabis since 2015, partly in reaction to laws in other countries, and to the fact that more and more travelers were inadvertently taking products containing the active component of cannabis with them: at the time of writing, a traveller who has brought products containing them for the 1st time will just have these products confiscated, and any resident caught with cannabis on their person is punished by a minimum of 3 months' imprisonment (instead of four years), or a fine of between $5,445 and $27,225 (it's up to the judge to decide whether to apply the prison sentence or the fine), and any expulsion from the country is decided by judges on a case-by-case basis5, which for a Gulf country is particularly tolerant, and is a clear improvement on the draconian laws of a few years ago.
And this effect can also be seen on a particular type of law: those that determine the taxes to be paid, as we'll see in next week's article.
What's more, innovative jurisdictions now allow you to choose, in a single location, the laws of which countries apply to you: do you want to set up a company in Dubai that follows British laws and whose disputes will be decided by British judges, rather than following Emirati laws? This is already possible6.
Do you want to choose your "package" of laws from dozens of pre-approved ones, rather than be obliged to obey those of the place where you live? It's already possible in at least one jurisdiction, which we'll talk about in later articles :)
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The series on the disruption of nation-states by the Internet
This article is the 9th in a series on the disruption of nation-states by the Internet.
Here are the first eight articles in the series:
"In Energy Crunch, Germany Turns Down Heat but Won't Limit Autobahn Speeds", Christopher F. Schuetze, The New York Times, 2022
"Prison avec sursis pour avoir incité à se passer de la Sécu", Le Figaro, 2018
"European court rules against German homeschooling family", Andrea Grunau | Elizabeth Schumacher, 2019