On the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)

114(1) American Journal of International Law 87 (2020)

Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1552

10 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2020 Last revised: 18 Sep 2020

See all articles by Richard Bilder

Richard Bilder

University of Wisconsin Law School

Date Written: January 22, 2020


This article calls attention to an emerging issue deserving the involvement of the international community and international lawyers — the possibility that humanity might contact intelligent and technologically advanced life elsewhere in our galaxy and universe. It also discusses whether we should develop a UN treaty or other international measures regarding present worldwide efforts — usually collectively referred to as the “Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)” and “Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI)” — to search for, contact and communicate with extraterrestrial beings and civilizations (“ETs”).

The article first presents background concerning SETI and METI including: (1) the probability that humanity is “not alone” and only one of many intelligent and technologically-advanced species in the universe; (2) consequent current scientific efforts to search for and contact possible ET civilizations, by using radio telescopes to listen for possible ET messages and sending radio messages and rocket probes from Earth intended to inform any ET civilizations of humanity’s presence on Earth; (3) the current debate concerning SETI and METI, and, in particular, the potential perhaps existential risks of disclosing humanity’s presence on Earth to a possibly predatory, colonizing and technologically-advanced ET civilization; (4) the present lack of legally-binding international law directly addressing SETI and METI issues; and (5) the SETI community’s development of several non-legally-binding Protocols setting out principles which SETI and METI scientists and researchers ought to observe.

The article concludes by discussing the pros and cons of proposals to establish either a UN treaty or “soft-law” measures, such as a UN Declaration of Principles or Resolution, providing more robust internationally endorsed norms, procedures and oversight regarding SETI and METI activities.

Keywords: Extraterrestrial Intelligence, SETI, METI, International Law, United Nations, UN Declaration, International oversight, aliens, space law, International Treaties

Suggested Citation

Bilder, Richard, On the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) (January 22, 2020). 114(1) American Journal of International Law 87 (2020), Univ. of Wisconsin Legal Studies Research Paper No. 1552, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3523959

Richard Bilder (Contact Author)

University of Wisconsin Law School ( email )

975 Bascom Mall
Madison, WI 53706
United States

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