Virtual Worlds: A Real Problem
Virtual worlds are a reality. The internet has spread its wings and brought every aspect of life under its shadow. Be it as simple a task as of sending a message or as complicated as getting married in a virtual world, the internet has it all. With the emergence of virtual worlds accessible through the internet, the world as we know it today has changed drastically. The question that obviously arises is whether this change brought about by the internet is positive or negative. The answer however, is quite complicated. On one hand, the internet is responsible for a great variety of benefits such as multiple tasks being performed by the click of a button and generating accessibility among people from different parts of the world. However, on the other hand, the internet and the facilities that it offers can be equally dangerous if not utilised in an appropriate manner.
Among the various facilities that are available through the internet, the most widely used and consequently hazardous application would have to be the virtual worlds. They provide an interface for people to interact in a completely virtual environment. This in turn gives people the power to portray themselves as they wish. The freedom that a person enjoys in a virtual world allows him to reveal any aspect of his character that he deems fit. Here lies the analogy between life in the virtual world and the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. While Dr Jekyll had revealed his dark side, Mr Hyde, with a potion, a person today can reveal his darker side thorough the virtual world. A respectable, law-abiding citizen can let his evil side lose in a virtual world to commit crimes. The problem that arises in the virtual worlds is that it becomes extremely difficult to find the actual person hiding behind the virtual personality, such that the identity of “Mr Hyde” in the actual world is unknown. Virtual worlds such as Second Life act as a medium for the “Mr Hyde” in everyone to function. It provides a plethora of opportunities for crimes to be committed, thus making criminality in virtual worlds is a raging issue that needs to be dealt with at the earliest.
The virtual world that has been exposed to maximum publicity, both for positive as well as negative reasons is Second Life. Second Life is a virtual world developed by Linden Lab which was launched on June 23, 2003. This virtual world is accessible via internet. The clients of this virtual world are called ‘Residents’. The Residents interact with each other through their virtual forms called ‘avatars’. There is no charge to create a Second Life account to make use of the virtual world at any point of time. In the virtual world, the avatars of the residents have the freedom to explore, meet other residents and interact with them in gatherings and group activities. The three dimensional virtual world allows its users to create virtual objects. The Linden Scripting Language further allows the users to add functionality, textures and animations to their objects. A majority of the Second life material is user created. It has been promoted by Second Life that all the residents retain the intellectual property rights over the objects they have created, while Linden Lab is offered a limited license for the purpose of promotion and marketing
Exploration in the virtual world is like travel in the real world. A resident may go to any place in the virtual world, even at random, if he finds the place interesting. Exploration can also occur in groups, there are provisions for organised tours and travel agents. The avatars interact with each other through text chat or instant messaging, often referred to as IM. There can also be interaction through voice and behavioural interaction in public places, where friends can meet. Thus, the virtual world provides a platform for the interaction of people from different parts of the world and different walks of life, thus promoting the old age saying-“It’s a small world after all!”
Second Life also provides its residents the facility to own land if they hold a premium account. The land can be purchased from Linden Labs or any private user. Residents may also purchase or rent land from any other resident. When a resident purchases land from Linden Lab, he is supposed to be a holder of a premium account. Also, he is expected to pay a monthly fee called ‘Tier’ if he purchases land above the minimum area of 512 m2. However, if residents purchase land from any other residents then they are not expected to pay any monthly fee. Linden Lab acknowledges only the landlord as the owner of the land, and will not intervene in any dispute arising between its residents.
Giving people the ability to buy and sell land automatically warrants the existence of some kind of revenue system in a virtual world. Second Life also runs its own economy with a currency known as Linden Dollars (L$). This currency can be used to buy, sell, rent, or hire any of the services that are available in the virtual world. The Linden Dollars can be purchased with US Dollars or any other currency in the LindeX exchange which is provided by Linden Lab, independent brokers or other residents. In January 2010, the exchange rate is L$ 260 to one US $. It is quite incredible that the concept of the virtual world as promoted by Second Life has been used by many to earn huge sums of money. There are companies that have generated US Dollar earnings from the services provided in Second Life. Such opportunities to make money are also extended to residents through the affiliate programs of these companies.
Considering that there is real world money involved in these virtual worlds, the real life companies are not far behind. Weber Studio is an example of a successful inter-world business which combines both the real and virtual worlds. The Weber Studio takes the vision of real life companies and transforms it into a visually stunning and aesthetic user interface. This studio thus plays a key role in developing the look and design of a real life company in the virtual world. It has been employed by The United Nations, The American Cancer Society, National Apparel and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Other commercial businesses are also creating their own establishments in the virtual world. Music television channel, MTV has built an island in the virtual world. This island is called “MTV’s Virtual Laguna Beach.” MTV intentionally solicited corporate sponsors to use the game environment to feature product placement and commercial advertisements inserted into the three-dimensional experience.
One of the companies that recruits in Second Life is Cisco. Andrew sage, the marketing vice president at Cisco, reported his extended team uses Second Life to recruit new talent. However, such programs are definitely accompanied with their own deficiencies. During a recruitment seminar for resellers, Sage accidentally caused his avatar to fly away while making a presentation, which was not ideal. Other companies are exploring Second Life to help employees collaborate on a day-to-day basis while reducing travel expenses. In mid-April 2008, Unilever went live with its own private world within Second Life, mainly to foster collaboration among teams located across the globe. There have also been attempts by companies to make real money out of the virtual world. This has been done by the music company Sony BMG, which has got an island in the virtual world called as Sony Music Media Island. Islands in Second Life are similar to Meta space, a mass of land surrounded by water. Islands can be used by the owners to perform any activities. Sony’s island is being used for holding live concerts and running merchandise stores. However, such developments have been warned against by Gartner Inc, which released a report about companies getting involved in virtual worlds. Gartner notes the security issues of having confidential information being shared across these networks, where companies may be subject to a security breach for both inside the network as well as for the employer’s own network.
While the safety of confidential information of companies is one of the issues that need to be addressed in the virtual worlds, the same goes for the information of the users. Copyrights over the information and objects created in the virtual world by their users are one of the major aspects of Second Life that has been in controversy. One of the most widespread copyright issues that occurred in Second Life was in its fashion industry. The crime committed was that of texture theft. In this particular incident the item in question was a skin belonging to a user ‘Starley’. The skin was purchased by another user ‘Mistress Midnight’. The latter had used an Open GL-texture-ripper in order to obtain the texture of the skin and make personal modifications to it. There was no distribution or reselling of the skin by ‘Mistress Midnight’, only modifications of the skin for personal use.
This incident resulted in the unleashing of a Pandora’s Box of questions with respect to the extent and control that users have over their objects. There exist two differing opinions that have been expressed with respect to this matter. Eggy Lippman, Second Life’s History Wiki founder is of the opinion that the owner has the right to modify an item after purchase:
“It is like that in the real world. You buy something, you are welcome to smash it into a million pieces. I don't see anything illegal or immoral in that.”
This opinion is seconded by Second Life Wiki founder Catherine Omega:
“Redistribution and resale of other people's IP (Intellectual Property) is wrong, but doing whatever you want with it for your own personal use is most definitely covered under Fair Use. Further, this is not DRM (Digital Rights Management) circumvention, prosecutable by Linden Lab under the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyrights Act, 1998), as the data is already decoded by Second Life. The tools Mistress describes involve pulling texture and geometry data from the video card and/or OpenGL processes.”
A similar opinion to those expressed above is provided by famed Second Life content creator Hiro Pendragon:
"[It] Greatly depends on what that item is. I personally hate that you can't add stuff to a skin. We've been promised extra tattoo layers. Some people make a business out of modifying skins they sell. But seriously, I think this is backwards thinking. I think anyone should be able to add any addition to skin they own, like scars, tattoos, makeup. So I suppose if someone rips the skin and mods it only for their AV, that to me is fine."
However, the concerns of ‘Starley’ in the given case were threefold. Firstly, she didn’t want people to think that she was the one who had textured the skin and then given it away. Secondly, she didn’t have a good way to determine whether her skin was purchased by someone else. Thirdly, she had contended that if she has intended users to freely modify her skins, she would have charged a higher price.
The ownership and copyright of the objects created by users of Second Life is governed by the Second Life Terms of Service Agreement. In 2003, the Terms of Service Agreement allowed the users to retain ownership rights for content created in Second Life. However, there was an inclusion made into the agreement in order to assert Linden Lab’s ownership over user accounts:
“3.3 Linden Lab retains ownership of the account and related data, regardless of intellectual property rights you may have in content you create or otherwise own. You agree that even though you may retain certain copyright or other intellectual property rights with respect to Content you create while using the Service, you do not own the account you use to access the Service, nor do you own any data Linden Lab stores on Linden Lab servers (including without limitation any data representing or embodying any or all of your Content)."
The main problem that has arisen because of this is that on one hand the users have the ownership over created content; however, they do not own the means to access that content. The amount of time invested by the users in the creation of their accounts and avatars is precious and thus requires protection. Earlier, with the users having ownership over their accounts, there was protection of their intellectual property. However, with the involvement of Linden Lab as the owners of all the user accounts there is a possibility of unfortunate moves by Linden Lab. Such a situation occurred when Linden Lab adopted a division of all the users based on a three-tier system. The users were divided on the basis of their ability and willingness to pay the company.
A case of copyright infringement was filed by a second life user Kevin Alderman, against another user who goes by the name Volkov Catteneo in the virtual world. The case was file by Alderman due to the alleged sale of goods created by him by Catteneo. Alderman used to charge a sum of $ 45 for the product created by him. Catteneo had allegedly made illegal copies of the same product and was selling them for one-third the price, thus reducing the profits to Alderman. There are two unique features of this case. Firstly, the object in question does not exist in the real world. Secondly, even the name of the defendant in the real world was unknown. Second Life users have no obligation to provide any real life information or their identity to other users. The relevant data would only be available on the Linden Lab servers and files. This, in turn would require Alderman to subpoena Linden Lab, so as to find the real identity of the virtual world Cattaneo.
The trouble that further occurred in this case was that Cattaneo had not provided any real life information to Linden Lab as well. This was possible because, post 2006, Linden Lab had not made it necessary for users to register with a driver’s license or any other real world identification. Thus, all that Linden Lab could provide Alderman was the Internet Protocol address of Cattaneo. The name of the case filed is Eros LLC v John Doe. While Eros LLC is the name of the company owned by Alderman in Second Life, filing a copyright infringement case against “John Doe” is an established practice in Internet cases where the defendant’s identity is not apparent initially.
One of the most controversial incidents that occurred in Second Life was the creation of a malicious code by a user. This program was called ‘copybot’ because it made copies of all virtual items belonging to other users. This code was disruptive to the functioning of Second Life because the virtual objects of the users were being stolen. In response to this incident, Linden Lab offered to refer any complaints to real life law enforcing agencies under the Digital Management Copyright Act. It also directed its users to file an Abuse Report if they felt that their virtual objects were being copied using a ‘copybot’.
While dealing with intellectual property of the users of Second Life is a cumbersome task, there has emerged an even bigger issue dealing with the monetary resources of the users. This is the issue of online gambling. One of the major drawbacks of virtual worlds such as Second Life is that they provide a forum for activities such as internet gambling. The main problem that arises is that due to the vastness of the virtual world and the inter-mingling of people from different countries, there arises clashes of jurisdiction and the laws to be made applicable to the users. Thus, the law always lags behind the new technologies that are constantly being developed to facilitate such activities. While internet gambling is legal in certain countries like the United Kingdom, it is illegal in the United States, thus creating contradictions between the laws which are to be applied.
One of the ways by which internet gambling is facilitated is through Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG). These games are essentially giant online worlds where people can interact with others and compete in online games and quests that progress according to the online world’s storyline. The MMORPG community keeps on growing due to the advent of widespread and high speed internet access. Also, these games include a unique level of anonymity and there is an extraordinary level of input by the users into the design and behaviour of the characters that represent them. Gambling occurs within such universes, either in an un-integrated manner or in an integrated manner. In un-integrated gambling, the gambling is not meant to be a part of the game, but players have figured out a way to gamble using whatever is available in the game. Such gambling occurs whether or not it is permitted by the game. Integrated gambling, on the other hand, is gambling that is directly supported by the gaming engine.
One of the reasons why internet gambling did not face stiff opposition in its initial stages itself is that the gambling winnings had no value, and gambling was done entirely for fun, and not for profit. However, in recent times, the MMORPG has blurred the distinction between pure entertainment and profit, thus establishing an entire external economy based on these games. Online gambling in Second Life takes place by converting real life money into Linden Dollars and then using this money to gamble in online casinos. The problem that occurs is that as people lose money in the virtual world, they simultaneously lose money in the real world as well. The other important aspect to note is that in the real world, casinos are strictly regulated by authorities so as to ensure that there is no foul play. However, such regulations do not exist in internet gambling forums, thus making them vulnerable to fraudulent activities. The theoretical possibilities of misuse in an unregulated MMORPG environment are endless. This potential for misuse is further magnified due to anonymity of users.
Firstly, the most dangerous consequence of MMORPG is that they can be used by underage gamers. It is quite easy to manipulate the age restrictions in such gaming atmospheres. Thus, they too indulge in gambling activities, which would be against the law in several countries, leading to criminality. Next, children can get hold of their parents’ credit cards and use the money to fulfil their gambling desires. Thirdly, with the large amount of unregulated money that flows through these online gaming systems, there is a great possibility for money laundering and fraudulent transactions.
With such dangers of misuse apparent, there is a need for immediate regulation of such MMORPG environments. This is because, in the future, the number of users will only multiply, making the chances for misuse even more prominent. Thus, efforts need to be made to tackle with the existing technology effectively. The aim must be to regulate effectively rather than completely ban, considering that there are a large number of people employed in these environments.
While there is a threat to the wealth of the users of Second Life, there is also an equal amount of danger to users themselves. The potential threats that are applicable to the users of Second Life are due to cyber-stalking and cyber romances. The main problem with cyber-stalking is the jurisdiction. How can a person who is being cyber stalked take action against his/her tormentor if the cyber-stalker belongs to another country? The main problem is that International Law is always a few steps behind these cyber-tormentors. This is because, due to the fast pace and change of technology, new methods are developed continuously, always leaving the existent laws inadequate to deal with a particular situation. Quite rationally, how can International Law deal with all the possibilities of abuse of technology, all over the world? The other major problem is that the cyber-stalkers are being pursued with the same fundamentals as real-life stalkers. In this approach, there are inherent flaws. Firstly, the real-life stalkers are people who belong to the same country as the victim, thereby avoiding the issue of jurisdiction. Also, in the case of real-life stalkers, they can be identified by the victim through a name or appearance. However, this is not the case in the virtual world. Once one enters the virtual world, such information is firstly not available and secondly, unreliable. Thus, the identification and apprehension of cyber-stalkers is much more complicated than that of real-life stalkers.
There are two major steps that can be taken by victims of cyber-stalking so as to enable the identification of their tormentors. The cyber-stalker needs to be traced with the help of the address of his Internet Service Provider. There is also a need for co-operation from the organization responsible for providing the interface for communication between the cyber-stalker and the victim. Thus, in the event of cyber-stalking, organizations such as Second Life need to provide authorities with the information that is required for the identification and apprehension of such cyber-stalkers.
Second Life has issued a list of directions for its users so as to deal with the issue of cyber-stalking. The users of Second Life have the facility to file an Abuse Report if they wish to bring to the notice of Linden Lab any suspicious activities. They have been directed to file an Abuse Report which should include all the details including the list of avatars of the offender and the chat logs. These details would in turn be used by Linden Lab to make full use of any evidence that would be provided in the Abuse Report. Apart from the filing of the Abuse Report, Linden Lab has also directed its users to immediately terminate contact with cyber-stalkers and ban such offenders from their land. They have also directed the users not to share any kind of information with the offenders, nor to react to their behaviour as this would in turn only fuel their actions.
Despite these efforts made by the virtual world organizations to deal with the issue of cyber-stalking, there still are complications which have not been dealt with. The complication that arises is that how does one determine whether one is being cyber-stalked or not? What might be considered as harassment by one party may be deemed to be acceptable behaviour by another. Depending on the jurisdiction in question, an objective approach to cyber-stalking needs to be taken. Thus, in order to determine whether a person’s claim of harassment by a cyber-stalker holds water, one needs to use the ‘reasonable man’s point of view’. Thus, in order to apprehend a cyber-stalker, it must be determined that a reasonable man would definitely be harassed by the activities that had been carried out by the cyber-stalker.
Apart from cyber-stalking, another major problem that has surfaced due to the virtual worlds is the impact that virtual world relations have on real-world relations. Due to the existence of the virtual world, there have been divorces among real-life couples. A British couple in real-life got a divorce after the wife discovered that her husband was having an affair in the virtual world. Also, internet romances lead to brief and stormy marriages which do not last, leading to depression and strained social relations. The main problem associated with the virtual world is that it serves as a potential forum for affairs, leading to abandonment of existing spouses and children by a person for the pursuance of an affair in the virtual world. The knowledge that a spouse is having an affair, even if it is in the virtual world, is enough to insidiously affect the real-world relationship.
While Second Life can be a haven for cyber-stalkers, it can also act as an environment for committing sexual offences. Second Life has often been in controversy due to the usage of the virtual world for sex games. So eminent is the presence of sexual games in the virtual world that, it has been said as follows:
“Whatever brings you to Second Life, you’ll soon find that sex is everywhere. You’ll be curious and probably tempted to jump in right away, and I bet you’ll be surprised by what it’s like in this strange virtual environment.”
The virtual world Second Life acts as a haven for the various sexual fantasies of its users. The users of Second Life use this virtual world to experiment with homosexuality or indulge in sex games involving other users who themselves are experimenting and playing roles. Such behaviour in Second Life is actually appreciated by Philip Rosedale, the Chief Executive Officer of Linden Lab:
“In a lot of ways, the presence of sex as an aspect of creative expression and playful behaviour in a place like this is healthy, because it indicates we're doing something right," he said. The presence of sex is also a sign that people are engaging with the community and with each other, and connecting with each other as human beings.”
However, the rampant involvement of sex games in Second Life has a very dark side as well. Such an atmosphere provides novel opportunities to criminals. Second Life allows its adult users to form sexual relationship and engage in cybersex. The users can also indulge in role playing activities. The greatest concern that has arisen out of this is the existence of paedophilia in such virtual worlds. Since the adult users can pretend to be children and have virtual sex with other users, this promotes paedophilia. In fact, these virtual worlds have been described as a school for paedophiles. In response to this, the Dutch prosecutor’s office is considering legal action to test the law against child pornography in Second Life. Even the German Police is investigating Second Life for the allegation of users participating in the trade of child abuse images online. Following this, Linden Lab explicitly banned the ‘role playing’ of users where they pretended to be children and indulged in virtual sexual activities.
The founders of Second Life will of course do whatever is within their control to prevent criminal activities from taking place in their virtual world. However, considering that they have to keep the virtual world thriving in order to make their profits, automatically limits the amount of restrictions that they can impose on their users. If there are too many restrictions laid down by Linden Lab regarding the use of the facilities provided by Second Life, there will definitely be degradation in the level of enjoyment of the users. This in turn would adversely affect the interests of Linden Lab. Keeping this in mind, it needs to be understood that the number of restrictions that can be laid down are few and limited. This being established, the question that arises is what can be done to deal with the issue of criminality in Second Life? Is there no way to ensure that the facilities in the virtual world are not misused by users? The answer lies with the users themselves. There is always a general notion that a wrong act can be deterred only through punishment or strict measures. However, in order for such a virtual world to thrive, punishment cannot be the only deterrent.
It is with this realisation that the role of the users gains importance. The users of such virtual worlds must understand that the virtual world that they use for recreation, business or any other activities, will only last if they are careful while using it. Every person who participates in any activity in a virtual world must make an active effort to keep the “Mr Hyde” in him at bay. Just because the restrictions in the virtual world cannot be as stringent as they are in the real world, it must not result in the usage of a virtual world for criminal activities. Offences such as online gambling, cyber-stalking and viewing child pornography are not pardonable in any world, be it real or virtual. The mere fact that the process of trial and punishment of such offences in the virtual world is convoluted due to the existence of people from multiple countries and jurisdiction, should not act as a stimulant to criminal activities in the virtual world. It is therefore, extremely important for the users of virtual worlds to understand their responsibilities and act accordingly. The hands of the administrators of virtual worlds are tied, inasmuch as they need to promote the virtual world despite all the dangerous possibilities. The virtual world individually does not pose a threat. It depends entirely on the type of usage. It goes without saying that it is the users who determine the level of safety that is available in a virtual world. The onus thus lies on the users to ensure that they remain within the boundaries of the law so as to ensure that the benefits of the virtual world are available to those who wish to avail of them. A policy of self-regulation by the users themselves will be the best and most feasible solution for the existing criminality situation in the virtual worlds. Just as Dr Jekyll made all possible efforts to keep the activities of Mr Hyde under control, the users of a virtual world need to control the criminal tendencies within themselves so as to allow the functioning of virtual worlds to continue without legal hiccups.
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