May 12, 2007

Second Life Strife

I have too much going on in real life to take time to play the virtual reality game Second Life. Others—several million—have joined, though, and as with other Internet-based trends (e.g., chat rooms and MySpace) it has developed a following among pedophiles. It wasn’t designed to be this way but whenever you have a large population you have a playground for predators.

...With that being the case, German police are investigating the site because some of Second Life’s “residents” have created images of virtual child porn. While the images in the game aren’t of real children, Germany has laws against child pornography in any form—even if the “victim” is nothing more than a manmade pixilated image on a monitor. The United States doesn’t have such a law, and it’s creating quite a debate—well…okay, not really a debate; more like lots of jumping to extremes, but this is America and that’s how Americans debate nowadays.

...In 1996, Congress passed the Child Pornography Prevention Act, which was said to be designed to help fight against the sexual exploitation of children, but the law’s language was severely broad and in 2002 the United States Supreme Court ruled in Ashcroft v. The Free Speech Coalition that virtual child pornography can’t be criminalized because no real-life child was abused.

...Critics of this ruling have said that virtual child pornography helps to encourage pedophiles and as such the potential for preventing a future crime should trump the existence of a real-life victim. (For a better look at the CPPA and Ashcroft v. The Free Speech Coalition, read Danielle Cisneros’s “‘Virtual Child’ Pornography on the Internet: A ‘Virtual’ Victim?” made available from the Duke Law & Technology Review.)

...The debate—and I use that term loosely—over this issue has increased in recent weeks as federal law enforcement officials have increased criticism of the Supreme Court ruling. An ABC News story reported that an FBI agent was “devastated” by it and that “[a]ll virtual porn does is satisfy [sic] them until they can find their next victim.”

...Comments left on threads pertaining to the story run the gamut, ranging from support for the Supreme Court ruling, citing the fact that “victims” aren’t real, to those who say that “[t]he whole internet should be shut down till this is sorted.” In between are those who refer to virtual child porn as a “gateway drug” and those who blame the whole thing on George W. Bush being in the White House. There are also a few who really aren’t sure what Second Life is but want it shut down anyway.

...Before I continue with my point of this post, I feel the need—in an effort to explain my position to those who quickly jump to conclusions—that I’m adamantly opposed to child pornography and child molestation of any type. I’d actually like to see laboratories use convicted child molesters in cosmetics and household products testing instead of innocent animals; not only would it give us a better idea of what it would do to humans but it would also spare the lives of innocent animals.

...With that out of the way, the point of this post is this: For those who are supportive of criminalizing virtual child pornography, you have to be aware that you’re opening the floodgates for the criminalization of many more fictionalized criminal acts. If we determine that a crime is a crime, no matter if it’s a pixilated image on your computer screen or on the corner of your block outside your door, we have to be ready to criminalize many more things that are currently accepted as being “just make-believe.”

...For instance, games like the Grand Theft Auto series and even the Medal of Honor series will have the potential for being outlawed. This is because in these games—as well as others, but I’m using these as popular examples—the user has the ability to kill. While the “killing” is nothing more than virtual killing, we’ll have already established a precedent saying that there is no difference between the two. Did you run down a pimp in Grand Theft Auto III? If so, and if we apply the concept that virtual crime is akin to real-life crime, we’ll have no choice but to charge the user with murder. Did you play a Medal of Honor game and kill a Nazi? If so, your intentions might have been noble, but you still committed murder and as such will need to be charged.

...We shouldn’t, however, stop there. If we establish that fictionalized crime is still crime, we have the possibility of investigating charges against those in the movie industry, too. Did Robert Englund really kill dozens of people in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies? No, but it wouldn’t matter because we could argue that it had been established that fictionalized crime was equal to real-life crime.

...What about Murder-Mystery Weekends? The argument easily could be made that while a real murder hasn’t been committed, the act could still be punishable because fictionalized crime is still crime.

...In an effort to defend myself from those who quickly misinterpret things, I must reiterate that this post isn’t to defend virtual child pornography. I’d be more than happy to see those who look at virtual child porn removed from our society (having seen no scientific evidence to suggest otherwise, I’m a firm believer that child molesters can’t be rehabilitated). This is why I applaud Linden Lab, which created Second Life, for being willing to remove the user-introduced child porn—virtual or otherwise—from their site. Their blog states: “Linden Lab has absolutely zero tolerance for depictions of child pornography within Second Life.”

...The purpose of this post is to remind those who oppose the 2002 Supreme Court ruling—from those in law enforcement to soccer moms and dads—that while your intentions are more than noble, you’re failing to consider the consequences of criminalizing depictions of crime. Even if you want it to begin and end with virtual child pornography, it doesn’t mean that it must.

ABC News
ABC News (comment thread)
BBC News
Duke Law & Technology Review
Second Life blog (comment thread)