Saturday, December 08, 2007

Law and the 3D Internet

Over the last month or three, I’ve read several news stories about how IBM and Linden Labs, along with a number of IT companies, are working to develop “avatar interoperability.”

“Avatar interoperability,” as you may know, means that you, I or anyone could create an avatar on Second Life and use that same avatar in other virtual worlds, such as HiPiHi or World of Warcraft or Entropia.

The premise is that having created my avatar – my virtual self – I could then use that avatar to travel seamlessly among the various virtual worlds.

In a sense, I guess, the interoperable avatar becomes my passport to participate in as many virtual worlds as I like; I would not longer be tethered to a specific virtual world by my limited, idiosyncratic avatar.

Avatar interoperability seems to be one aspect of creating a new 3D Internet. One article I read said the ultimate goal is to replace our current, text-based Internet with “a galaxy of connected virtual worlds.” So instead of experiencing cyberspace as a set of linked, sequential “pages,” each of which features a combination of text, graphics and sound, I’d log on as my virtual self and experience cyberspace as a truly virtual place. Or, perhaps more accurately, I would experience cyberspace as a linked series of virtual places, just as I experience the real-world as a linked series of geographically-situated places.

Cyberspace would become an immersive, credible pseudo 3D reality – the evolved twenty-first analogue of the hardware-based virtual reality people experimented with fifteen years or so ago . . . the tethered-to-machinery virtual reality depicted in 1990’s movies like The Lawnmower Man and Disclosure. That older kind of virtual reality was seen as something you used for a particular purpose – to play a game or access data.

The new 3D Internet featuring interoperable avatars is intended to make cyberspace a more immersive experience. Our approach to privacy law in the United States is often described as sectoral; that is, instead of having general, all-encompassing privacy laws, we have discrete privacy laws each of which targets a distinct area of our lives. So we have medical privacy laws and law enforcement search privacy laws and wiretap privacy laws and so on.

I think our experience of cyberspace is currently sectoral, in this same sense: I go on, I check my email, I check some news sites, I might do a little shopping on some shopping sites, then I might watch some videos or check out some music or drop into Second Life to socialize a bit or schedule flights or do any of the many, many other things we all do online. I think my doing this is a sectoral activity because I move from discrete website to discrete website. I may log in multiple times, using different login information. I go to each site for a specific, distinct purpose.

I think, then, that the custom of referring to websites as “web pages” accurately captures the way I currently experience cyberspace. really is much more analogous to browsing the pages in a book than it is to how we experience life in the real, physical world. In the real-world I do go to specific places (work, grocery, dry cleaner’s, restaurants, hotels, dog groomer, book store, mall, etc.) for distinct purposes. But I’m “in” the real-world the whole time. I don’t need to reconfigure my reality to move from discrete place to discrete place; the experience is seamless.

So that seems to be the goal behind the development of the 3D Internet. It seems to be intended to promote a more immersive, holistic experience of cyberspace while, at the same time, making it easier and more realistic to conduct work, commerce, education and other activities online. Avatars, currency and the other incidents of our online lives would all become seamlessly portable.

Personally, I really like the idea. I think it would make cyberspace much easier and much more interesting to use. It would also really give us the sense of “being” in another place when we’re online.

When I first heard about avatar interoperability, I wondered about what I guess you’d call the cultural compatibility of migrating avatars. It seemed, for example, incongruous to imagine a World of Warcraft warrior coming into Second Life or vice versa (Second Life winged sprite goes into WoW). And that’s just one example. I had basically the same reaction when I thought of other kinds of avatars leaving their respective environments and entering new and culturally very different worlds.

But then, as I thought about it, I realized that’s really what we do in the real world. We don’t have the radical differences in physical appearance and abilities (or inclinations) you see among avatars, but we definitely have distinct cultural differences. We may still have a way to go in some real-world instances (I’m personally not keen on going to Saudi Arabia, for example), but we’ve come a long way from where we were centuries ago when xenophobia was the norm.

And the ostensible cultural (and physical) differences among avatars will presumably be mitigated by the fact that an avatar is only a guise a human being uses to interact online. Since it seems humanity as a whole is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan and tolerant, the presumably superficial, virtual differences among avatars may not generate notable cultural incompatibilities as they move into the galaxy of interconnected virtual worlds.

I also wondered about what this might mean for law online. Currently, as you may know, the general operating assumption is that each virtual world polices itself. So Linden Lab deals with crimes and other “legal” issues in Second Life, and the other virtual worlds do the same. There have been, as I’ve noted in other posts, some attempts to apply real world laws to conduct occurring in virtual worlds. Earlier this year, the Belgian police investigated a claim of virtual rape on Second Life; I don’t know what happened with the investigation. As I’ve written elsewhere, U.S. law currently would not consider whatever occurs online to be a type of rape, because U.S. law defines rape as a purely real-world physical assault. Online rape cannot qualify as a physical assault and therefore cannot be prosecuted under U.S. law, even though it can inflict emotional injury. U.S. criminal law, anyway, does not really address emotional injury (outside harassment and stalking).

That, though, is a bit of a digression. My general point is that so far law generally treats online communities as separate, self-governing places. Second Life and other virtual worlds functionally have a status analogous to that of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century colonies operated by commercial entities like the Hudson Bay Company or the British East Indian Company. That is, they are a “place” the population of which is under the governing control of a private commercial entity. As I, and others have written, this makes a great deal of sense as long as each of these virtual worlds remains a separate, impermeable entity. As long as each remains a discrete entity, and as long as we only inhabit cyberspace by choice, we in effect consent to have the company that owns and operates a virtual world settle disputes and otherwise act as law-maker and law-enforcer in that virtual realm.

Things may become more complicated once avatars have the ability to migrate out of their virtual worlds of origin and into other virtual worlds and into a general cyberspace commons. We will have to decide if we want to continue the private, sectoral approach to law we now use for the inhabitants of discrete virtual worlds (so that, for example, if my Second Life avatar went into WoW she would become subject to the laws of WoW) or change that approach somehow.

It seems to me the most reasonable approach, at least until we have enough experience with this evolved 3D Internet to come up with a better alternative, is to continue to treat discrete virtual worlds as individual countries, each of which has its own law. This works quite well in our real, physical world: When I go to Italy, I submit myself to Italian law; when I go to Brazil I submit myself to Brazilian law and so on. At some point we might decide to adopt a more universal, more homogeneous set of laws that would generally conduct in cyberspace. Individual enclaves could then enforce special, supplemental laws to protect interests they deemed uniquely important.

One of my cyberspace law students did a presentation in class this week in which she told us about the British law firms that have opened up offices and, I believe, practices in Second Life. That may be just the beginning. Virtual law may become a routine feature of the 3D Internet.


jwatte_food said...

It's too bad that media has latched on the idea of "avatar interoperability," because that's not actually the main thrust of the interoperability forum. It's much more important to let the systems talk to each other on the back end. The driving market right now for letting you move your avatar from World of Warcraft into is not big enough to support anywhere near all the work that would be involved in implementing it, so it won't actually happen. Meanwhile, there are big gains to be had on the server side. Check out the following link for an example:

Susan Brenner said...

Thanks for the comments and the link.