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Does Virtual Reality Need a Sheriff?
Moreover, Linden Labs, which operates Second Life, has given users the software tools to design their characters and online setting as they see fit; some avatars look like their real-life alter egos, while others are fantastical creations.
This virtual frontier has attracted a stunning array of immigrants. Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has opened a virtual campaign headquarters. Reuters and other news agencies have set up virtual bureaus. IBM has developed office space for employee avatars. On May 22, Maldives became the first country to open an embassy in Second Life, with Sweden following this week.
Second Life is intended only for adults, and about 15 percent of the properties on the site -- in essence, space on computer servers that appear as parcels of land -- have been voluntarily flagged by their residents as having mature material. Though some is relatively innocent, in some locations avatars act out drug use, child abuse, rape and various forms of sadomasochism.
"This is the double-edged sword of the wonderful creativity in Second Life," Dibbell said in an interview.
One user found herself the unwilling neighbor of an especially sordid underage sex club. "Tons of men would drop in looking for sex with little girls and boys. I abhorred the club," wrote the user on a Second Life blog under the avatar name Anna Valeeva. She even tried to evict the club by buying their land, she wrote.
The question of what is criminal in virtual reality is complicated by disagreements among countries over what is legal even in real life. For example, virtual renderings of child abuse are not a crime in the United States but are considered illegal pornography in some European countries, including Germany.
After German authorities began their investigation, Linden Labs issued a statement on its official blog condemning the virtual depictions of child pornography. Linden Labs said it was cooperating with law enforcement and had banned two participants in the incident, a 54-year-old man and a 27-year-old woman, from Second Life.
Some Second Life users objected on the blog that Linden Labs had gone too far.
"Excuse me. You banned two residents, both mature, who did a little role-playing? No children, I repeat no children, were harmed or even involved in that act," protested another user on the Second Life blog. "Since when is fantasy against the fricking law?"
Philip Rosedale, the founder and chief executive of Linden Labs, said in an interview that Second Life activities should be governed by real-life laws for the time being. He recounted, for example, that his company has called in the FBI several times, most recently this spring to ensure that Second Life's virtual casinos complied with U.S. law. Federal investigators created their own avatars and toured the site, he said.
In coming months, his company plans to disperse tens of thousands of computer servers from California and Texas to countries around the world in order to improve the site's performance. Also, he said, this will make activities on those servers subject to laws of the host countries.
Rosedale said he hopes participants in Second Life eventually develop their own virtual legal code and justice system.
"In the ideal case, the people who are in Second Life should think of themselves as citizens of this new place and not citizens of their countries," he said.