Space Ramblings

Legal Issues: Virtual Crime in a Virtual World

Does Virtual Reality Need a Sheriff? The Washington Post asks. The reality is it doesn’t. The overall cases listed may require some mental adjustment from law enforcement but the fact of the matter is that they’re entirely covered under current legal codes.

Earlier this year, one animated character in Second Life, a popular online fantasy world, allegedly raped another character. Some Internet bloggers dismissed the simulated attack as nothing more than digital fiction. But police in Belgium, according to newspapers there, opened an investigation into whether a crime had been committed. No one has yet been charged

Then last month, authorities in Germany announced that they were looking into a separate incident involving virtual abuse in Second Life after receiving pictures of an animated child character engaging in simulated sex with an animated adult figure. Though both characters were created by adults, the activity could run afoul of German laws against child pornography, prosecutors said.

There is a fundamental difference here though. You cannot rape an avatar. You can arguably simulate a virtual assault that would comprise harassment and other charges of inflicting emotional trauma but a physical assault has obviously not occurred. At some point abusing someone’s avatar might become classified as some form of crime, but likely not yet. Certainly not unless there’s genuine sensory feedback that causes the attack to be virtually ‘felt’.

By contrast the German case just features issues with sexual depictions of children. It’s a legal issue that predates Second Life or the internet.

Two years ago, Japanese authorities arrested a man for carrying out a series of virtual muggings in another popular game, Lineage II, by using software to beat up and rob characters in the game and then sell the virtual loot for real money.

Again, a real crime. The property stolen may be virtual but it has real world value. It’s essentially a real theft using a hack and the visual mugging itself is just the avatar side of it.

In World of Warcraft, the most popular online game, with an estimated 8 million participants worldwide, some regions of this fantasy domain have grown so lawless that players said they fear to brave them alone. Gangs of animated characters have repeatedly preyed upon lone travelers, killing them and making off with their virtual belongings.

Here’s where it gets mildly tricky once goods in a game have actual value, then killing a character and looting his possessions does mean taking money from him. But once something is permitted under the rules of the game, then it can’t be considered theft. And really killing and looting other players was always part of MMORPG’s. Real life money complicates things but at the end of the day it can be seen as analogous to virtual poker. You can lose money online in virtual poker to other players but if the rules are being followed, they’re being followed.

Julian Dibbell, a prominent commentator on digital culture, chronicled the first known case of sexual assault in cyberspace in 1993, when virtual reality was still in its infancy. A participant in LambdaMOO, a community of users who congregated in a virtual California house, had used a computer program called a “voodoo doll” to force another player’s character to act out being raped. Though this virtual world was rudimentary and the assault simulated, Dibbell recounted that the trauma was jarringly real. The woman whose character was attacked later wept — “post-traumatic tears were streaming down her face” — as she vented her outrage and demand for revenge in an online posting, he wrote.

Well no doubt having that happen is emotionally unpleasant but it isn’t a sexual assault. The trauma comes from a sense of violation but that same violation can occur for women through being sent threatening sexual messages. Such behavior can fall under a variety of existing legal offenses including harassment, etc…

It really isn’t about the avatar in the end but the sense of personal space and safety being compromised.

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