Anarchy in the Virtual World

This is a super-short version of a paper that I am presenting at the 2013 International Studies Association conference in San Francisco, CA.


Actors in the virtual world operate under conditions of anarchy. While de jure law attempting to regulate the virtual world proliferates, such law is so easily circumvented and so rarely enforced as to be safely ignored for analytical purposes. When we fail to recognize the anarchic nature of the virtual world, we come to fundamentally incorrect conclusions about it. For example, legal scholars like Lawrence Lessig (2008) and Jonathan Zittrain (2008) argue that the internet is moving towards greater control and regulation. In contrast, I argue that the virtual world is moving towards less control as state capacity to regulate it rapidly diminishes. In this paper, I explore the application of political science theory about anarchy to the virtual world. I then demonstrate how disruptive technologies have severely undermined the regulatory capacity of the state, resulting in anarchy.

Anarchy and the Virtual World

The virtual world is a space defined primarily by social constraints rather than physical constraints. Social constraints refer to legislation, norms, and standards; they also encompass the software and protocols underlying the internet, which are products of social decisions. There is a fundamental symmetry between intellectual property and the internet: both lack physical constraints, and both are constituted by social constraints. Because of this symmetry, I see them as components of a larger whole, which I call the virtual world. Because the virtual world is defined by social constraints, and social constraints can be changed, the nature of the virtual world can be changed.

In both everyday language and political science jargon, anarchy has several definitions. While it can mean chaos or disorder, political scientists usually define anarchy as a lack of authority. I define anarchy as the lack of practical resort to the state as an effective arbiter of disputes and enforcer of judgments. The concept of anarchy offers significant explanatory value for understanding the virtual world. In one of the most forceful statements of the implications of anarchy, Kenneth Waltz (1979) offers a generalized theory of the concept: “To achieve their objectives and maintain their security, units in a condition of anarchy—be they people, corporations, states, or whatever—must rely on the means they can generate and the arrangements they can make for themselves” (p. 111). The key point is that actors operating under anarchy must first and foremost rely on themselves. Resort to a higher authority such as the state is not an option.

Disruptive Technologies and the Retreat of the State

3D printing refers to technology that can build models, parts, and molds out of plastic and other materials by printing layers of material on top of one another. Since its introduction, the technology has continued to fall in price and increase in availability. The intellectual property implications of 3D printing remain unaddressed; recently, however, discussion has shifted away from the dangers that 3D printing presents in terms of intellectual property infringement, and towards the dangers presented by the unregulated ability of individuals to make things, especially dangerous things.

Defense Distributed (n.d.) is a non-profit group with a stated goal of “facilitating global access to, and the collaborative production of, information and knowledge related to the 3D printing of arms” (n.p.). The group initially made headlines in 2012 when it announced it had successfully printed portions of an AR-15 rifle and tested it by firing several rounds. Defense Distributed made news a second time when it successfully printed and tested a high-capacity magazine for an AR-15 (Rosenwald, 2013).

Recent gun control proposals suggest instituting background checks for private sales and banning high-capacity magazines. 3D printing has the potential to completely undermine the regulatory capacity of the state in such matters. In a few years, 3D printing will allow individuals to produce weapons in the privacy of their own home without any background check or record of their manufacture. Likewise, 3D printing will eventually allow the unlimited and undetectable production of high-capacity magazines for virtually any firearm. Once designs for such items exist, they will be shared across the internet with the same ease and undetectability as any other digital file. Just as attempts to prevent the sharing of copyright infringing files have roundly failed, attempts to prevent the sharing of firearm or other designs will also fail. The potential ubiquity of easily accessible, undetectable, untraceable, and inexpensive firearms will ultimately doom any attempt at their regulatory control.

Bitcoin is a digital currency that is distributed over a peer-to-peer network. Introduced in a pseudonymous paper published in 2008, it facilitates anonymous transactions by eliminating the need for any kind of trusted third party; furthermore, it combats currency manipulation by algorithmically defining its supply (Nakamoto, 2008). As of March 2013, it has a market capitalization of over $500 million, and experiences about 60,000 transactions daily (Coinbase, n.d.).

Bitcoin also presents severe challenges to the regulatory capacity of states. Because of the anonymity it affords, Bitcoin is a preferred currency for online marketplaces offering illegal products and services (Christin, 2012). Transactions in Bitcoin would normally be taxable, but since they are anonymous, they are unlikely to be reported to the IRS. Because of its peer-to-peer structure, regulators have no way of directly controlling the Bitcoin network. The result is that Bitcoin offers an alternative currency for conducting anonymous, cash-like transactions on the internet. Bitcoin is a disruptive technology that undermines the regulatory capacity of the state.


The virtual world is defined primarily by social, rather than physical, constraints. Social constraints can take the form of law and architecture, but also operate through norms and market forces. While law and architecture do regulate actors in the virtual world, these constraints are in many ways less important than norms and market forces. Laws without enforcement are simply ignored, and architectures are hacked and repurposed to serve the ends of users.

The lack of practical resort to the state as an effective arbiter of disputes and enforcer of judgments suggests that the virtual world is anarchic. Empirical evidence of the lack of state capacity in the virtual world abounds: 3D printing promises to undermine regulatory capacity with respect to physical objects whose designs are shared over the internet, and distributed digital currency facilitates anonymous and untaxable transactions without any regulated intermediaries or central points of failure.

In spite of this anarchy, actors have discovered new ways to profit. Intellectual property has little meaning in a world where infringement is ubiquitous and undetectable; thus, actors must compete by selling services that cannot be pirated, by making their goods so cheaply and easily available that it is not worth the effort to pirate them, or by convincing people who could pirate to pay for the good anyway. Indeed, anarchy and the difficulty and cost of protecting intellectual property in the virtual world may presage a future in which intellectual property is less important to the global economy than it is today.


Christin, N. (2012). Traveling the Silk Road: A Measurement Analysis of a Large Anonymous Online Marketplace. Carnegie Mellon University CyLab. Retrieved from

Coinbase. (n.d.). Bitcoin Charts. Retrieved March 13, 2013, from

Defense Distributed. (n.d.). About Us. Retrieved March 13, 2013, from

Lessig, L. (2008). Code (Version 2.0.). New York: Basic Books.

Nakamoto, S. (2008). Bitcoin: A peer-to-peer electronic cash system. Consulted, 1. Retrieved from

Rosenwald, M. S. (2013, February 25). Weapons made with 3-D printers could test gun-control efforts. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Waltz, K. N. (1979). Theory of International Politics. New York: Random House.

Zittrain, J. (2008). The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. New Haven: Yale University Press.


This essay is © 2013 Gabriel J. Michael, and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND.


About Gabriel

Ph.D. in political science. Postdoc and resident fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project. Tech geek. Mechanically inclined. I study the politics of intellectual property.
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