Virtual rules - real life lawyers and second life avatars

27 Mar 2007


Late last year the animated figure of a balding, bespectacled man addressed a motley crowd of characters that included a chipmunk, a robot and pencil-thin supermodels. It was a comical scene but a serious subject - the future of law in virtual worlds. The speaker was US judge Richard A. Posner who had arrived as an avatar in Linden Lab?s Second Life, symbolising real world law grappling with a virtual legal vacuum.

Judge Posner predicted that customs would gradually give birth to laws that would govern virtual worlds. "The way law historically develops is from custom. I can imagine customs emerging from interactions among avatars, and then Linden codifying the customs, as laws, that seem best to regulate the virtual world." Eventually, like the Law of the Sea, "there will be an international law of virtual worlds", Posner said. (8)

The challenge is vast. Law in virtual worlds is nebulous, with many of the most basic rules still to take shape.

As we increase business and social interactions online, so does the need for agreed law or conventions covering property, copyright, contracts, crime (including sex crimes), tax, privacy, gambling and money laundering. It is the dollars spent "?in-world" and taken out of world that will drive the urgency of new laws.

A central question for lawyers, academics and eventually the courts will be where to draw the line between two sets of regulation: the virtual world ?Terms of Service? agreements (TOS), which set the rules ??in-world??; or the long arm of the real law and how far it might extend into the virtual world.

Then, if legal principles are established, whose laws apply? Which jurisdiction? If the server owner is in the US but the offender is in Australia, where is the case dealt with? Can the owner or publisher of a game decree that certain laws apply to gamers? And what are the consequences of letting private companies make laws for millions of people? (4)

Once resolved, these issues should drive expectations of residents in virtual worlds. But it may also impact the overriding philosophy that virtual worlds may have today. For example, Philip Rosedale?s Linden Lab has a clear ?hands off? policy to governing in-world: "If people reasonably can see what everybody else is doing, if there?s lots of transparency if the lights are on as I like to say, people are basically good and we see that in Second Life. And I think that means that we want to govern as little as we can and it also means that in the long term we won?t need to." Four Corners Interview with Philip Rosedale, CEO Linden Lab.

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