Who Has ‘Metaphysical Jurisdiction’ In Second Life?

    October 26, 2007
    WebProNews Staff

 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.