As part of its reporting on trends and issues in crime and criminal justice, the Australian Government’s Institute of Criminology has issued a research paper that takes a look at transgressions that occur in virtual worlds.
Crime Risks of Three-Dimensional Virtual Environments was written by Ian Warren and Darren Palmer and kicks off with a mention of what may have been the first case of its kind—the “rape” of an avatar in the text-based game LambdaMoo. The incident resulted in a Village Voice piece on the incident, and eventually a book, and brought the issue of crime in virtual worlds to light.
A similar incident took place in Second Life in 2007 and actually caused Belgian police to patrol the online community to prevent rapes.
While virtual crimes such as money laundering or fraud can usually be handled by real-world laws, the grey area of harassment-type assaults online seems to continually confound authorities.
A few thoughts put forth by the paper:
The question of whether real-world notions of interpersonal harm apply to virtual assault or sexual assault is unresolved. This complicates the question of regulation within virtual worlds.
While civil redress for psychological harm is conceivable, the 'disembodied' character of such an incident would invariably bar liability for any crime against the person.
The paper notes that under Australian federal criminal law, a maximum penalty of three years could be levied on someone who menaces, harasses or causes offense to another user, though whether this law has ever been applied to virtual worlds is unclear.
Thanks to multinational users, jurisdictional uncertainties and technology that continues to evolve, “there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the role of criminal law in these multi-user categories.” The paper suggests that, “Formal criminal intervention would only have a place if an appreciable and measurable effect on the real-world victim could be established.”
Since so much is unknown or untested about this subject as of yet, the paper suggest research directions for the future, which include “enhancing our understanding of the nature of harm within multi-user 3dve (three-dimensional virtual environments) platforms,” and more collaborative research on how to protect children in virtual worlds.
The report concludes:
Clearly, Australian 3dve users require more knowledge to identify, manage and prevent harm. Developing a systematic approach to harmonise current knowledge on these emerging issues is perhaps the greatest research priority.