Chicago Journal of International Law

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Private technology companies (tech companies) are increasingly providing their digital goods and services to clients living and working in situations of armed conflict. Tech companies may own, operate, or maintain significant portions of the digital infrastructure that allow day-to-day essentials—such as water, medical care, and electricity—to reach civilians living in places affected by armed conflict. They may own communications platforms that people use to call emergency services. They may own social media outlets that organizations rely on to inform communities in need about access to humanitarian services or that families use to maintain contact with each other. Those fighting today’s armed conflicts, including well-resourced militaries, and less-developed non-state armed groups, also undoubtedly rely on hardware, software, and networks manufactured, serviced, and secured by tech companies. They use them to coordinate and carry out a wide array of military operations, including the management of troop movements, military fuel and spare parts, and medical supplies. This paper’s premise is that as tech companies increase their involvement in armed conflict, the legal implications they face under international humanitarian law (IHL)—a body of law that regulates who and what is protected from the hostilities of armed conflict—also rise. Recognizing that cyberspace spans the globe with little concern for geography and borders, Section II discusses how this reality effects the applicability of IHL’s principles and rules relating to tech company employees and properties. From there, Section II explains the protections IHL affords the employees and properties of tech companies operating in situations of armed conflict and when, in exceptional circumstance, those protections might be lost. Section III moves on to discuss how IHL addresses situations where civilians and civilian objects get caught in the “digital crossfire” when they are reliant on, or located in proximity to, tech companies involved in armed conflict. Section IV concludes with practical recommendations for companies to take to minimize risks to their employees, property, civilian customers and surrounding civilians and civilian objects, including civilian infrastructure.

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