The greatest advance that the Internet has brought us has been the enhanced ability to communicate with one another. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who use the Internet to harm and defraud others, as cyberbullies and spammers do. And, even sadder, the richer we make our experiences online, the more brutally we can have our sensibilities assaulted, as the recent “rape in Second Life” shows.
Second Life is a massive, multiplayer, online game where customers can contribute to the online world they inhabit. Although it is graphically rich, like many games, it doesn’t have objectives like most games — instead, “residents” of Second Life interact with one another and develop software to enhance the environment itself. Second Life residents are represented by an avatar, or graphical representation of themselves, which they control via mouse and keyboard to explore the world and talk to others. Second Life also has a thriving marketplace where residents buy and sell virtual items to enhance one another’s experience online. The currency of Second Life is even traded for dollars, and some people make a living by selling software to enhance Second Life. This online world has a lot of potential, and several large companies have presences there.
Unfortunately, the virtual world is home to many cyberbullies. According to Science Daily, residents are sometimes harassed in Second Life by other players who follow, push, curse at, and according to the Washington Post, sexually assault their avatars. In a recent incident, one player allegedly wrote a program that allowed him or her to simulate sex with another player without the victim’s consent. The victim, having not consented, found the experience traumatic and called the police. I can empathize; being a web writer, a lot of my life is spent online, and I disdain others using my representations of myself (such as my name or accounts) against my will.
This incident is disturbing on several levels. For this discussion, though, I would like to ignore the semantic issues that encircle events such as this one; if you want an interesting (and potentially adult, so kids don’t click) discussion of assault online, see Wired, Virtually Blind, and the original “A Rape in Cyberspace” from 1993 (yes, it’s been going on that long). Instead, I’d like to look at it as an issue of cyberbullying, identity theft, and economics. Portraying another person in a sexual encounter against his or her will online certainly constitutes use of the Internet to hurt or embarrass another person, and is a clear case of cyberbullying. However, in an environment such as Second Life, where people do conduct business and carry on relationships, this situation could also be a form of identity theft, and it could have real economic repercussions. As mentioned here before, online identities are worth real money. Thus, having been a good cybercitizen for many years, I could build trust in a community and have a valuable online identity. However, if someone hijacks one of my accounts and makes it appear that I have said and done things that I would never do, my reputation could be destroyed, and with it, measurable economic value. In this sense, assaults such as this one are not only morally reprehensible, but also have potential economic consequences, which push them into the realm normally regulated by law.
The residents of Second Life do not want the law to intervene, though, from what I can gather. Thus, they have a unique prevention opportunity: there are currently no formal enforcement or deterrence mechanisms in Second Life (other than having one’s account terminated by Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, for violating the terms of service). Instead, the residents of Second Life have only prevention to rely on. Preventing cyberbullying and cybercrime are hot topics right now, and a there is a great deal of good research and writing on them — the path might be fresh but it is not untraveled. If the residents work earnestly and successfully at prevention, it may be all they ever need.