For a few years now, we've been pointing out that there's eventually going to be a big problem when people realize that applying real world laws to online virtual worlds raises some very tricky legal questions. One of the examples we gave was of a character "stealing" another character's property and then being arrested for it. If the "real world" laws apply -- then this person is guilty of theft (which might make sense considering that virtual goods are now taking on real value thanks to eBay). However, what if stealing is a part of the game? Then that seems silly to have the person arrested. Then it starts to get very blurry. What if stealing isn't the main point of the game, but is possible in the game? What if the stealing is only possible because of a glitch? Where's the line? It looks like we have yet another example -- and it's hitting Linden Labs' Second Life. This isn't surprising. A few years ago, Linden Labs got a ton of press for explicitly stating that real world laws applied in Second Life, and they were even granting real "ownership" of goods in the virtual world to those who had them. As we pointed out at the time, rather than being a good solution, this just brought a lot of other problems into their world. The details of the story today are still a little unclear (and the facts may not be accurate), but it's being said that the CEO of the company has announced that he's handing over the names of some disruptive players to the FBI. The players used in-game scripting tools to cause various problems. Now, players who disrupt a game are clearly quite annoying -- and you can absolutely understand the frustration of other players and employees of Linden Labs. But is it a matter for the FBI? These players used the in-game tools that Linden Labs gives them to create these problems. Basically, they're living well within the programmed rules -- which the programmers (unintentionally, obviously) left open. So, the real solution should be to (a) close the flaw and (b) decide if you want to kick those players out of the game. It seems a little weird to ask the FBI to investigate someone doing something your own virtual world allowed them to do. Update: Ed Felten makes a strong case disagreeing with me, and saying that it's the right thing to bring in the FBI. I understand his reasoning, but still disagree. It opens up a Pandora's box of problems. The point about real world crimes being possible without violating the laws of physics is pointless comparison -- because we don't then call in police enforcement from outside of our world to enforce crimes in it, and (depending on your religious beliefs) there isn't someone actively controlling all aspects of "the world."
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