Belgian newspapers De Morgen and Het Laatste Nieuws recently carried articles that “the Brussels public prosecutor has asked patrol detectives of the Federal Computer Crime Unit to go on Second Life” to investigate a “virtual rape” involving a Belgian user of Second Life. For the uninitiated Second Life is an online simulator of real life in which people have avatars. Here take a look. The case presents several issues as to the interplay between online simulators which are increasingly real and lifelike and criminal law which applies in the real world.
(Proceeding on mere conjectures now) Rape as it may caused online may be done by two ways:
a) Statutory Rape: Where an adult engages in a sexual act with a minor below the age allowed by statute. Now in Half Life teenagers are given a separate zone or “grid” from where adults are excluded. So it is not possible for statutory rape to occur (goes with the normal technological caveat: what is created will be circumvented).
b) Traditional Rape: Rape which occurs due to sexual intercourse which is forced against the will and without the consent of another. Now it is pertinent to mention that such rape will occur (if it occurs) of a person’s avatar online and not the person themselves.
So what is the remedy if it occurs? Is it the mere vexing of intangible property of a person since development of an avatar on second life requires considerable real world expenditure of monies?
There is no simple answer to it and it needs a thorough academic debate. However, at present I do see a limited role which criminal law and penal sanctions can play. Criminal law may prohibit “virtual rape” as several foreign jurisdictions prohibit “virtual child pornography”. Even if the act is not a crime, the visual and textual basis of it could be considered obscene and illegal. There that puts an end to the societal harm arguments. Being a civil libertarian I hope that criminal law does not rain indiscriminately, even when crime recognizes no seasons.