May 9th, 2007 by Benjamin Duranske
Allegations of simulated and actual child pornography in Second Life have attracted the attention of mainstream international press outlets including the BBC, the CBC, and Australia’s The Age. Linden Lab says that it is cooperating with authorities, and that it has banned the accounts of two users (a 27 year old woman and a 54 year old man) who controlled avatars which appeared to be involved in simulated sexual acts between an adult and a minor.
The reports all stem from a German television news story that ran on a show called Report Mainz on Germany’s ARD network. The report itself (in German) is available as a RealPlayer video here. [Note: Particularly explicit portions of the video are "blurred," but it is NSFW, and some readers may find the video disturbing.] There is a transcript of the report, also in German, here (Google translation here). The story focuses on depictions of apparent in-world sexual contact between adult avatars and avatars with child-like appearances, but also claims that photographs of real-life child sexual abuse have been made available in Second Life.
Unlike the United States (where the Supreme Court, in 2002, struck down a law prohibiting “virtual” child pornography on First Amendment free speech grounds), many countries criminalize non-photographic images that appear to depict minors in sexual situations.
A complete survey of the law in this field is beyond the scope of this article, but a quick search reveals that a number of countries, including at least the U.K., Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, and Italy, have laws on the books banning virtual child pornography.
Any discussion of this issue inevitably leads to the fact that in virtual worlds, a small number of residents engage in “sexual ageplay” involving avatars that appear to be minors, but which are (presumably) controlled by adults.
There is an ongoing debate over whether sexual ageplay is a healthy outlet for adult fantasies, or a scourge of virtual worlds. That debate is not the subject of this article, but for the record, sexual ageplay practitioners differentiate themselves from pedophiles (who, they point out, are sexually interested in actual children, rather than in adults who roleplay children). Right or wrong, there is little question that sexual ageplay in virtual worlds does violate various countries’ laws prohibiting virtual child pornography.
This story has been building since early 2007. Several months ago, The Register (a U.K. based publication), reported that a Dutch prosecutor was considering bringing charges against citizens of the Netherlands who engaged in sexual ageplay in Second Life.
Shortly after that story broke, the Second Life Herald reported that Linden Lab had begun quietly contacting residents who appeared to be running businesses related to sexual ageplay, with the following message:
Dear Second Life Resident:
Linden Lab would like to inform you that your land or business is possibly not in compliance with Second Life’s Community Standards. The depiction of sexual activity involving minors may violate real-world laws in some areas, and the Second Life community as a whole has made it clear that it views such behavior to be broadly offensive. Linden Lab chooses not to allow the advertising or promotion of age play or related activities in any public forum — including in-world textures, classified ads, the Second Life forums, or parcel descriptions.
Advertisements, promotions, or descriptions of such activities must be removed to avoid account sanctions.
Any account asserting an age that does not meet Second Life’s minimum age of eligibility will be closed.
After Linden Lab began enforcing this policy, there was little news for several months. One subsequent SLH article claimed to show that Linden Lab’s efforts were futile, but other than that article, a little gnashing of teeth in online forums, and a well-researched summary piece from CNET’s Daniel Terdiman a few weeks ago, the issue largely disappeared.
So why the new attention now? Three reasons: First, there’s a video this time. Second, there’s an allegation that besides simulated child pornography involving avatars, actual photographs of child sexual abuse were also shown in-world. Third, non-US citizens now account for over 80% of the Second Life population.
Linden Lab has said that it will help identify the users involved and pass the information on to the police. Since it is an international issue, and it can take months (if not years) to get process service under the Hague Service Convention, Linden Lab could probably get away with stonewalling on this at least in the courts, if not in the press. But it isn’t, and that’s a very good thing.
While there’s room for debate over whether computer-generated depictions of minors in sexual situations should be illegal or should, as the U.S. Supreme Court found, be protected as free speech, there’s simply no room for debate about actual child pornography in a civilized society. In light of the seriousness of this round of allegations, Linden Lab is wise to break with its usual hands-off approach to in-world problems and cooperate fully with the authorities.
[Note: The morality of sexual ageplay in virtual worlds is not the subject of this article. Readers are encouraged to leave comments regarding that issue elsewhere. Comments on the legality of the practice are, of course, welcome.]
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