Who Polices Virtual Worlds?

Law and order is one of the cornerstones of a civilized society. Establishing rules of conduct, spelling out acceptable and objectionable behavior, defining the consequences for anyone who violates those laws and deciding who will enforce them are all essential to maintaining peace and harmony.

In the real world, there exist systems of laws — civil and criminal — that govern people’s behavior. However, in the digital world, who lays down the law? As virtual worlds such as Second Life and Eve Online continue to grow, attracting more and more residents — and often for vastly different reasons — who decides what goes and what doesn’t? What constitutes a crime in these worlds? Do real-world laws apply, or is up to the creators of these fantasy lands to police their own environments?

A Crime by Any Other Name

Whether it’s a massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) like “World of Warcraft” or a virtual world like of Second Life, each digital environment has a fundamental set of rules and regulations users agree to obey when they sign up. However, the nature of those rules depends greatly on the type of environment one is talking about.

In virtual worlds, so-called griefers cause mischief either individually or as the member of a gang of avatars, all for the joy of wreaking havoc. Others have attempted to use online realms as venues for activities like illegal online gambling. And theft of intellectual property in a virtual world can result in real-world lawsuits, as in the case of the code writers who sued a group of 11 people for allegedly ripping off their designs for unique Second Life props.

But what may be anathema in Second Life is part of the gameplay in other worlds such as “Vendetta,” said Eric Goldman, an assistant professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and director of the High Tech Law Institute.

“Stealing cash, stealing economic value, is a crime. It’s a crime in every system I know of. Taking property that’s not yours, that’s a crime, but when we’re dealing with virtual property, that question might get a little more sophisticated. How do we know what’s somebody’s and what’s not somebody else’s?” he queried.

“Particularly if there is a set of algorithms or rules in the game that everything is free for the taking — that might is right. So we have to be very careful about terms like ‘stealing’ because stealing might be clearly illegal, clearly criminal, and that’s nothing new. We’ve done that for millennia. Or it might be part of the gameplay, at which point it is not illegal, it’s encouraged as part of the overall interrelationships between the residents of the environment,” Goldman told LinuxInsider.

Governance and control is handled in different ways in different virtual worlds, Andrew Wall, research director for Security, Risk & Privacy at Gartner, told LinuxInsider.

“There is no one, single approach taken by the providers of the virtual environments. Some virtual worlds, such as Second Life, were designed to include a minimum amount of governance. Residents of these worlds were expected to establish their community behavioral norms. Other virtual worlds include strong governance and control. In these worlds, such as Habbo Hotel, the provider of the environment sets and enforces clear rules for behavior,” he pointed out.

Rules of the Game

In some regards, a virtual world’s operators don’t even need to establish certain rules of conduct because they effectively control reality. In some virtual worlds, it’s simply impossible for one avatar to kill another, for example.

“These are things that people can or cannot do to each other based on the way the virtual world operator has designed their environment. Violating these rules is simply impossible because the gameplay doesn’t allow it to occur. The code doesn’t function that way,” Goldman said.

In other cases, the provider may punish rule breakers by fining their virtual bank accounts.

Lastly, there are social norms. Here, there is often no actual retribution imposed on a person for their choices, though a virtual society may simply reject and shun those displaying the behavior.

“Who governs virtual world environments? They are governed by [criminal laws], governed by torts, governed by the virtual world providers’ rules and they are governed by social norms,” Goldman stated.

These elements come together and jointly are responsible for helping maintain law and order.

“It’s a joint responsibility. Everyone provides a piece of the puzzle. We have our criminal system; that provides a piece of the puzzle. Our judicial system that enforces torts; that provides a piece of the puzzle. We have our virtual world provider, and then the community itself does its own enforcement, and that is a piece of the puzzle. It’s a shared responsibility, and it would be a mistake to focus on only one aspect,” Goldman explained.


  • Law & goverance are important issues in SecondLife (SL) in particular. People are encoruaged to invest their own income into SL on the promise of being able to extract "profits" or "funds" at a later date. However, Despite Linden Lab’s claims, residents have very little protection when it comes to the risk of losing any investments made, particularly where the loss is a result of either an action taken by Linden Lab OR the company’s refusal to take action.

    Linden Lab themselves will frequently act arbitrarily and with no explanation. This has lead to an alarming increase in the number of user accounts summarily banned from SecondLife without any explanation from Linden Lab whatsoever. Thus, individuals who (so far as they are aware) have not violated the stated Terms of Service suddenly find themsleves unable to log into SecondLife or its supporting website. Thus, in a stroke, they are cut off from all content they have created in-world AND from any funding they have invested in the environment. Worse, they cannot even contact Linden Lab directly – as they need their account in order to lodge a Support Ticket!

    There is no clear explanation on how to deal with this situation, or on what happens to individuals’ funds sequester in this manner by Linden Lab.

    Another area of concern is that of "basic accounts". These are essentially "free" accounts Linden Lab use to encourage players into Second Life.

    "Basic account" users are typically power users in Second Life. They rent land, they buy lindens on the Lindex and they are the bulk of customers who buy products from content creators.

    BUT should a Basic account holder lose "inventory" in SL through s system fault – they have absolutely no recourse within Linden Lab to recover the lost item(s).

    "Inventory" refers to the items users create and buy in SL. It represents the biggest investment (next to "land") a user can make in SL. Linden Lab themselves estimate that the "average" user (i.e. Basic Account holders) spend some $3000-$4000 USD annually in SL. Yet the system that handles this inventory is crippled by poor performance, instability and frequent crashes.

    While users themselves can lose items through there own errors (accidentally deleting it, for example), inventory loss through system faults in pervasive throughout SL – and has been for well over a year.

    Yet when it happens, Basic Account holders are simply told by Linden Lab to either "go premium or go away" – in other words, take out a PAID account (just under $10 USD a month) or get lost.

    This is, to say the least, a high-handed attitude from a comapny all too willing to benefit either directly or indirectly from these people paying up to $4K a year into their environment.

    In fact, Basic Account holders are so limited in how they can file for help from Linden Lab that they are unable to even register a Support Ticket on the subject of lost inventory, as they are restricted to filing Tickets under a restricted list of subjects – and inventory loss isn’t one of them. And try to file s Ticket relating to such a loss under one of the pre-defined Ticket types will result in Linden Lab simply rejecting the Ticket and closing it without investigation.

    So, while the need for greate in-world goverance and regulation for resident-to-resident transactions is undoubtedly needed into SecondLife, it is also fair to ask, "who watches the watchers" – in this case, Linden Lab themselves – and holds them to account?

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