Friday, September 21, 2007

Virtual Worlds Become Virtual Nations?

An interesting piece was recently posted on Virtually Blind by Israeli attorney Jonathan J. Klinger. The crux of his argument was:

For example, earlier this year, Michael Carlton, CEO of online sportsbook Victor Chandler, was arrested in Israel. An Israeli court asserted jurisdiction over Carlton, a foreign citizen, and stated that as long as a portion of the illegal activity (here, gambling) occurred in Israel, there is no need for universal jurisdiction, and the website operator is subjected to the Israeli law (State v. Carlton, Hebrew decision). The court stated that it was in Victor Chandler’s responsibility to bar all communication from Israel since the activity they offer is illegal for Israeli citizens to participate in.

Using the same rationale, any employee of Blizzard or Linden Lab could be subjected to the Israeli penal code, as they are allowing illegal conduct (under Israeli law) to take place on their servers. Blizzard could face harsher liability as it distributes World of Warcraft actively in Israel, while Second Life is only available for download.

The only solution to these legal problems is to separate players according to countries, or even states (as some state laws in the US differ regarding pornography and violence). Any other solution may cause a conflict of laws, and subject the industry to liability twice: the first is the constitutional tort, where legal expression is barred though there is no local legal reason to bar it (e.g. ageplay in the U.S.) and the second is potential criminal prosecution by another state which may prosecute company leaders for user actions that are actually legal in the home country of the company.
I, however, do not agree. Moreover, I believe the precedent set by Isreal should be looked at with disdain by the legal community. Take note here that I'm departing from an actual analysis, which the above quote limits itself to, and moving into theoretical alternatives that would generally be beneficial to all those involved.

I want to begin with a meta-theoretical statement. The purpose of virtual worlds is to bring people together. As such, the solution that either people must be divided on geographical lines or game providers must be subjected to liability is a pure frustration of purpose. Of course, the concept of making a "virtual world" an actual nation is equally blasphemous. In fact, it seems at though negative consequences could easily result from creating "independent nations" within nations that exist on servers. So, what solutions are available to the problem? Clearly the social conscience of a person in Texas cannot be made to match a person in Isreal or Japan or France. That idea is equally impracticable, and in the same vein, the pipedream of creating "universal rules" to govern the internet is impracticable. Moreover, the idea that we allow complete free speech to govern our online worlds only gives rise to the most deplorable of content, as child predators would take refuge under the "free speech" of the digital world. There is also the final consideration that, ultimately, the server space is private property. The Grid belongs to Linden. Azeroth (all of the various iterations on the various servers) belongs to Blizzard.

So where does this leave possible solutions? Governing in-world conduct being left to the worlds owners, how should jurisdiction be handled? I think it is time for a paradigm shift an analyzing jurisdictional elements with virtual worlds. Put simply: Server location dictates jurisdiction. While this idea won't bode will with the "minimum contacts" proponents out there, the theory does have a logical base. Ultimately, the activity occurs on the server, not at the user end. I can click buttons all day long on my personal computer, but without the server end, there is no net effect. As such, the server is the critical component. This is the basis for a client-server model, and this is, in my opinion, how it should be treated under the law. This provides the maximum certainty for the developer.

This, of course, leaves the issue of performing an activity illegal in one country on a server located in another. Ultimately, issues like these will have to be resolved by the governments, rather than putting the developer in the line of fire or forcing the defeat of the purpose of virtual worlds. So, for example, if a 3rd world nation hosts "Child Porn: The Game," it will be up to the international community to pressure that country to abolish the game. (Moreover, with something as pernicious as child pornography, local governments could likely track subscriptions and users in order to find offenses in the local countries. I can't say I favor invasion of privacy, but I also can't say I oppose using any means necessary to remove dangerous predators from the streets.) On the other hand, with something as hotly debated as online gambling, rather than leaving the user and developer in difficult and awkward positions, it would have to be resolved between nations. Ultimately, either the moralists would win, or the simple positive economics would. In either case, the burden is on the government, or indirectly on society as a whole, rather than punishing the developer or the user based on what are largely ambiguous lines.

Will this paradigm shift happen? It seems doubtful given the overwhelming analysis of jurisdiction to the contrary. However, I think that we have reached a time in which the old analysis need to be seriously re-examined based on the dramatically different world and virtual worlds that technology has created.

[Via Virtually Blind]

1 comment:

jonklinger said...

I don't think that the Carlton Ruling was right as well. When it was decided, it was disputed by many legal scholars here, but the district court asserted the Jurisdiction in the appeal. The problem is that countries want to assert jurisdiction, no matter what. Check out what happened with Sportbook or any other online gaming platform: the owners, even if not working with US credit cards, had to move out of the US just to be left alone.

The only way to go against this nationalisation of international law is either to harmonise (i.e EU) cyberlaws or to understand that virtual worlds need 'special' treatment.