Blastoff: what do New Zealand’s new space laws mean for other emergent technologies?

A key characteristic of so-called ‘exponential technologies’ is that they change what is possible extremely quickly – and it can be fascinating to observe how fast or slowly governments react. Lawyer Steven Moe looks at the developing world of space law, and questions whether similar moves are needed for other exponential technologies on our immediate horizon.

It is hard to imagine that Captain Kirk worried too much about legislation governing space travel on the Enterprise (apart from the ‘Prime Directive’, which was broken most episodes). Yet here in New Zealand we have some new space laws which have just been introduced in a bid to provide a framework and regulation around this burgeoning industry. 

Just a few days before Christmas The Outer Space and High-altitude Activities Act 2017 commenced. Passed earlier in the year, it supports the development of the New Zealand space industry and opens up the possibility for New Zealand to be seen as even more of a world leader in this area than it already is. Many will be familiar with Rocket Lab, founded by Peter Beck, and these new laws are directly related to (and a result of) the success of that company. One of the key purposes in the new Act states it is there to “facilitate the development of a space industry and provide for its safe and secure operation”. When announcing the changes the press release issued at the time said:

“The New Zealand Government supports the development of an internationally credible, competitive and well connected NZ-based space economy that can make a difference in our everyday lives. Our regulatory regime is the key to making this happen. It enables the growth of a safe, responsible and secure space industry that meets our international obligations and manages any liability arising from our obligations as a Launching State.”

The new Act focuses on introducing rules around space launches and covers a variety of topics that were not previously covered (or had even been thought about before) such as:

  • launches into outer space
  • requirements for launch facilities
  • payloads (eg satellites) and high altitude vehicles (HAVs).

It does this through six types of licences or permits (for now, Rocket Lab still operates under a separate agreement it has with the government and will have six months to apply for a licence). The licensing and permit process will be administered by the newly createdNew Zealand Space Agency” that sits within MBIE. This legislation has to be among the first to deal with the need to have a mitigation plan in place for orbital debris.

The regulatory impact statement issued in August 2017 makes for interesting reading as it outlines the background, reasons for the legislation and likely activity. For example, how much detail should applicants need to provide when applying for a licence or permit? Requiring too much information might put applicants off, but too little might not lead to well informed decisions. In the end, a pragmatic approach seems to have been chosen after consultation with the industry. It will be a case of watching to see how many applicants come forward or whether there are barriers to their participation. It is clear that the government is looking beyond just being a launch site – the new space agency states: “We believe New Zealand can become a significant player in the global commercial space launch industry. However, the opportunities for New Zealand are much broader than launch activities.”

It is worth pointing out that New Zealand was party to much earlier treaties, such as The Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space from 1969. But it is certainly hard to imagine even a few years ago that we would now have legislation introduced dealing with “celestial bodies”, “space objects” and “high altitude vehicles”, yet here we are. If you had some space ambitions then it is best to read up on the requirements accessible here. There will be a review completed after three years.  

Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom. Photo: supplied.

Great, but what next? This is space we are talking about after all…

Of course, one of the next areas to consider will be the law surrounding space and planets – this is beyond just New Zealand of course. But how will the legal system in relation to planets develop? Will the powers that control resources here on Earth end up having more control than others on planets “up there”? After all, how do you legislate over the legal jurisdiction in outer space when it is off world territory – who owns asteroids, planets, the sun? The closest there is at present is the Outer Space Treaty, a multi-lateral international treaty which operates on the idea that space is for everyone. That’s a nice concept but what will it mean when we practically can go into orbit and start a mining operation on the Moon?

I recently interviewed Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom for a podcast I host about purpose and understanding what people have learned on their journeys. One of the first people to arrive in New Zealand on an Edmund Hillary Fellowship with a three year Global Impact Visa, Emeline is a co-founder of SpaceBase and co-wrote the 2013 book Realizing Tomorrow: The Path to Private Space Flight.    

SpaceBase is aimed at “co-creating a global Space Ecosystem to serve entrepreneurs in emerging space industries – starting in New Zealand. Our goal is to provide access to training, networking, technical services, and investment opportunities where they are needed most.” I asked Emeline about the issue of who will own what up in space. Here’s what she told me:

“Really the reason why we are doing this is the democratisation of space, for everyone.  And when we say for “everyone” – today you can really see a bright future with all of the things that are happening in terms of the space technology that is being brought forward in the US and China and Russia – but I am still not quite sure if the rest of the world is actually going to be in the same playing field.  So when I mean a bright future I want everybody – and unfortunately today, you can see that gap widening, and so I don’t want to put that to chance.”

These are certainly challenging ideas to think through now in the relatively early days of space travel and exploration. As New Zealand leads the way and becomes a more widely known launch site it would be great if there could be a corresponding advocacy at an international level for a discussion of these other issues as well.

The full interview with Emeline on this and other space-related topics is accessible here.

How might this response impact other exponential technologies?

One real point of interest here is the extent to which commercial application of emerging and new technologies can lead to a quick reaction by government. Emerging technologies are coming out all the time now – to become exponential technologies they need to have the characteristic of rapid improvement in price/performance over time. The famous “Moore’s law” is that every 18 months the number of transistors per square inch on circuits will double. Many of these new exponential technologies were highlighted at the SingularityU conference held in Christchurch just over a year ago (some great resources and content including videos from that event are here).  They will be the subject of the next such Singularity conference in this region which is being held in Sydney in late February – for more on that one click here.  

The example of the new space law shows that there can be a relatively quick legislative response to new developments – in this case a one month consultation in May with the Act commencing in December. Increasingly, the government will need to keep an eye on developments like Bitcoin which quickly become more than just talk and instead offer new challenges to the way things have been done in the past.

In areas where there are these new emerging technologies or exponential technologies, there is now some policy and legislative catch-up to be done:

  • Cryptocurrency: A time traveller from even a few months ago would be shocked at the amount of print devoted to Bitcoin and cryptocurrency. The Financial Markets Authority has issued some guidance about Initial Coin Offerings and services related to cryptocurrencies. But what is still missing is more in depth analysis of how the government itself will react to a new way of trading that doesn’t really involve it in the way that traditional transactions have. 
  • Blockchain: Sitting behind cryptocurrency is the real game changer: Blockchain technology. What are the policy and legal changes needed at a national level to deal with a decentralised network of data? 
  • Artificial Intelligence: There are many examples but to pick one, the idea of financial advice being given by robots has resulted in consultation which started in June 2017; in October the FMA noted that it “has decided to grant an exemption to enable personalised robo-advice”. In what other fields might advice be given that will need similar changes? How about my own area, the legal industry? This is something I am watching closely as a co-founder of Active Associate, a legal-tech startup improving access to legal information through AI powered conversations.  
  • Autonomous vehicles: These are coming, so if I am reading the newspaper (on a device of course), while my car drives me along the road when it swerves to avoid hitting a cat and kills a pedestrian, who is responsible? The Government provided the following comment in this release at the end of last year leaving the question open: “There are no obvious legal barriers to the deployment of autonomous vehicles for testing in New Zealand. Unlike some countries, NZ law has no explicit requirement for a driver to be present. However, autonomous vehicles could raise issues about who is at fault if they were to crash.”
  • Big Data and Privacy: Think about the last time you were asked to click “accept” on some terms and conditions – I would say the chances of actually reading the privacy provisions in those are extremely low.  We are collectively giving up our privacy in exchange for convenience that apps, software and new technology provides. Does the law need to respond – or are we kind of OK with that?

Such ideas demonstrate the importance of considering again where we are, and where we want to be. The new laws around space have been introduced fairly quickly which shows what is possible. Maybe it is time that some of the other technologies mentioned above were looked at again and a proactive and world leading approach was taken to ensure their full potential can be reached here in New Zealand.


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