Who Has ‘Metaphysical Jurisdiction’ In Second Life?

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 Before the end of this sentence you will have to make a choice between the blue pill and the red pill, for as soon as we step over the period we will enter an alternate reality and it will not be easy. Lawyers are looking into virtual worlds like Second Life, studying whether the environment is suitable for regulation and asking who has "metaphysical jurisdiction."

Who Has 'Metaphysical Jurisdiction' In Second Life?
Who Has ‘Metaphysical Jurisdiction’ In Second Life?

See, I warned you.

This conversation comes courtesy of the Association of Internet Researchers‘ annual conference, which happened recently. Virtual worlds were a focal point at the meeting, as people are investing real time, energy, and money in creating and maintaining virtual worlds and virtual economies.

Thus, it begs the question as to whether virtual worlds need real-world regulation, or if they are capable of self-regulating via a type of free market economy and existence. But to answer that question, other questions about the nature of virtual worlds and the people who have an existence in them must be answered.

It’s not too late to get out, by the way, before we get into some really mind-bending stuff.

The gods of these worlds are by no means collectively imagined, nor are they anthropomorphic or democratic. Lawyers don’t deal in world-gods, so they label them differently: the virtual world providers. An example would be Linden Labs, which runs Second Life.

So, before we can get into the nature of the virtual world and the virtual people within it, we first must understand the nature of the creator/provider. The provider has the power to delete anything and everything that exists in the virtual world. As it is not in the interest of the provider to delete everything that exists, the provider holds a power it will not yield.

However, the provider can and has motivation to pick and choose on a singular basis what does exist, including avatars, currencies, and other objects. It is debatable as to whether the provider is held in check or self-regulated by a democratic process – i.e., too much tyranny unmakes existence as avatars choose not to exist in such an environment – or if the provider exists as a sort of benevolent dictator, maintaining an equilibrium that keeps avatars happy and motivated enough that existence proves fruitful.

A reasonable person might think it was a combination of both, but the model only applies to proprietary software-driven virtual worlds where all is controlled and maintained by mono- or even polytheistic entities. Some argue, though, that even if virtual existence were governed by open source – i.e., the avatars creating in concert their reality – " it still wouldn’t solve the normative determination of what’s fair to do to players."

Still with me? Good.

But what if a third party, an evil within, a devilish presence, runs amok as a hacker with the power to strip away virtual assets that could be ascribed value in the real world. Who is accountable? The hacker thief, of course, is primarily responsible, and punishment rests with the provider, who, ironically, created a world where the hacker thief could exist in the first place.

And if so, what responsibility does the provider bear for the allowable existence of the hacker-thief? Some might say the provider is absolved of all responsibility via the end-user license agreement, a document all within the virtual world have access to, but less than one percent have read. The avatars should have known better than to make risky investments in a mostly perception-based world.

Shouldn’t there be, then, some other arbitrator in this equation – a power higher than the virtual world provider to resolve how much responsibility, if any, the provider has to its avatar subjects? And if there is a higher power, who regulates him?


Eric Goldman, who bears direct responsibility for the above virtually metaphysical exploration, says (paraphrased) "that’s just life." His take on whether virtual worlds should be regulated:

• no evidence of market failure. Investments still growing rapidly
• We can rely on existing consumer protection laws (such as false advertising) [to] provide substantial protection for any [virtual world] provider deception

If only it were that simple in the real world.        

Who Has ‘Metaphysical Jurisdiction’ In Second Life?
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  • http://secondthoughts.typepad.com Prokofy Neva

    It’s a complex matter about real-life jurisdiction and the potential for some metaphysical jurisdiction that people could create across boundaries called “The Metaverse”.

    Already, the experience of Second Life is that RL jurisdiction begins to encroach on the mental construct of the global shared reality, as soon as say, German and Dutch prosecutors come looking for even fictional or anime child pornography that would be legal in the U.S., or a merchant whose bed design has been ripped off and resold mounts a real-life case involving intellectual property, or when casinos and gambling are banned due to new U.S. legislation.

    In all these cases, it is not the government that intervened first; it isn’t even RL authorities in various individual cases; it’s individuals battling other individuals or non-state actors in groups. They file the complaints over child pornography and gambling; they file the complaints over intellectual property theft.

    There is a real struggle to be had between game gods and the mortals who inhabit their worlds. One thing is certain: lawyers are not the ones needed or wanted to rule these worlds. The worst thing possible would be for a Global Bar Association to get started, as some at SL Bar Association are trying to do, trying to get people to certify their avatars as credentialed RL lawyers and build a global base. This sounds interesting at first, until you remember there is no global executive, legislature, or judicial branch which would restrain these zealous lawyer-activists, some of whom are merely anonymous avatars with sectarian agendas.

    Lawyers might be counted on to help, if they are willing to struggle for the rights of avatars and not only represent corporate interests that undermine those individual rights.

    No one has asked lawyers to regulate Second Life. People already regulate their Second Lives at the microlevel, making leases without any lawyer required, making contracts for micropayments that work fine to fuel the economy. Lawyers and regulators should not be interfering or meddling or creating “global model contracts” at that level — only at the point when people cash out their virtual currency for real-life dollars do governments have authority for taxation.

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