Virtual rape is possible – but is it a crime?

That’s the question being asked here and there on the intarwebs at the moment, after a story appeared in a Belgian newspaper claiming that police in Brussels are beginning an investigation into allegations of a rape that occured in Second Life.

I’m no lawyer, nor am I an ethicist, and I don’t claim to have an answer one way or the other. But the fact that we can even be asking such a question is fascinating; the walls between the real world and the virtual – what Edward Castronova calls the ‘permeable membrane’ – are becoming increasingly thin and easy to cross, and the legal machinery is going to take a long time to catch up.

I like to use the ‘Wild West’ metaphor, describing MMOs like Second Life in terms of new frontiers where new experimental ways of life can take place, thanks to the relative lawlessness that prevails. It’s a double-edged sword, as the virtual rape case demonstrates, but these spaces are test beds for the social systems of the future.

Of course, much like there was in the American West, there is pressure on the people benefitting most from the expansion into new territories to police the anarchic goings-on. Which is probably why Linden Labs has announced their intent to exclude SL users from ‘Adult’ content in-world unless they can provide evidence of their legal majority … though the fact that the enforcement of non-adult content in a region labelled as such is to be left as the responsibility of the landholder leaves them a neat get-out clause for when something goes wrong. Every lazy sherriff needs a box-full of deputy badges.

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