International law shapes and limits the prospects for AI governance at the international level. Despite developments over the past 50 years, in legal terms states remain the primary actor under international law, and unless they agree otherwise, have almost sole power over its territories and those within them, as well as exclusive authority to make binding international rules. At the same time, states use treaties to arrange their relations with one another and to create treaty regimes to govern matters of international interest and concern. As examples of how international law affects AI governance, existing treaty regimes shape the issues and conversations concerning international intellectual property protection for AI generated inventions and works. International trade and investment agreements, particularly more recent trade agreements, have placed constraints on states to govern cross-border, online services, as well as cross-border data transfers, necessary for the provision of services with artificial intelligence features and for training artificial intelligence models. Thus, international law forms part of the regulatory landscape for artificial intelligence systems and provides some of the language used by companies, states, and other actors to develop AI norms. At the same time, that states have such legal power under international law and that such law applies only indirectly to multinational enterprises speaks to the limitations of that law as a tool for AI governance.

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