Ethics and Legal Aspects of Virtual Worlds

Ethics and Legal Aspects of Virtual Worlds

Andrew Power (Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Ireland) and Gráinne Kirwan (Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Ireland)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-132-0.ch007
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The development of a legal environment for virtual worlds presents issues of both law and ethics. The cross-border nature of online law and particularly law in virtual environments suggests that some lessons on its formation can be gained by looking at the development of international law, specifically the ideas of soft law and adaptive governance. In assessing the ethical implications of such environments the network of online regulations, technical solutions and the privatization of legal remedies offer some direction. While legal systems in online virtual worlds require development, the ethical acceptability of actions in these worlds is somewhat clearer, and users need to take care to ensure that their behaviors do not harm others.
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Virtual worlds are becoming a more important and prevalent part of our real world with each passing month. Shirky (2010, p37) argues that the old view of online as a separate space, cyberspace, apart from the real world is fading. Now that computers and other internet enabled devices (such as smartphones) have been so broadly adopted there is no separate cyberworld, just a more interconnected ‘new’ world. The internet augments real world social life rather than providing an alternative to it. Instead of becoming a separate cyberspace, our electronic networks are becoming embedded in real life (Shirky, 2009, p196). According to Adams (2010, p2) the virtual interactive worlds of Second Life (with 15,464,773 residents as of October 13, 2008) and World of Warcraft (with over 10,000,000 players) have populations larger than Sweden. The reason for this growth is in part, due to the natural inclination of humans to want to form groups and interact with each other, combined with the increasing simplicity of the technology to allow it. As Shirky (2009, p105) states “Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. [The tool] has to have been around long enough that most of society is using it. It’s when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen”.

Crime in a virtual world can take a number of forms. Some activities such as the theft of goods are relatively clear-cut whereas private law issues such as harassment or commercial disputes are more complex. Online crime has been defined as, “crime committed using a computer and the internet to steal a person's identity or sell contraband or stalk victims or disrupt operations with malevolent programs” (Princeton University, n.d.). The IT security company Symantec (n.d.) defines two categories of cybercrime, “Type I, examples of this type of cybercrime include but are not limited to phishing, theft or manipulation of data or services via hacking or viruses, identity theft, and bank or e-commerce fraud. Type II cybercrime includes, but is not limited to activities such as cyberstalking and harassment, child predation, extortion, blackmail, stock market manipulation, complex corporate espionage, and planning or carrying out terrorist activities”. Types of crime can be categorized as internet enabled crimes, internet specific crimes and new crimes committed in a virtual world. The first two categories of online crime have been observed for many years and the third, which coincided with the growth in online virtual environments, is a more recent development. Internet enabled crimes are those crimes which existed offline but are facilitated by the Internet. These include credit card fraud, defamation, blackmail, obscenity, money laundering, and copyright infringement. Internet specific crimes are those that did not exist before the arrival of networked computing and more specifically the proliferation of the internet. These include, hacking, cyber vandalism, dissemination of viruses, denial of service attacks, and domain name hijacking. The third category of crimes committed in a virtual world arises when individuals are acting through their online avatars or alternate personas (the Sanskrit word avatara means incarnation). In computing an avatar is a representation of the user in the form of a three-dimensional model. Harassing another individual through their online representation may or may not be criminal but it is at the very least antisocial. It is also the case that that online activities can lead to very real crimes offline.

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