Who will govern virtual worlds?

Summary:For now the virtual world--characterized by Second Life, World of Warcraft and other games--is governed by game creators, the player community and end user license agreements. The future may look different.

For now the virtual world--characterized by Second Life, World of Warcraft and other games--is governed by game creators, the player community and end user license agreements. The future may look different.

At the Terra Nova State of Play conference in New York, Indiana University professor Joshua Fairfield said:

"Governance in virtual world already in place and it's the real world governance."

Rutgers law professor Greg Lastowka agreed.

"The law doesn't distinguish between the real and virtual."

Those statements opened a flood of questions from the mostly academic crowd. Bottom line: Virtual worlds are virgin territory for law. It's not clear how local community standards will be taken into account, how common law will evolve and what happens when someone is defrauded out of assets. 

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One thing is certain: Real world and virtual laws will intersect at some point. "The goal is to find some militant middle ground," says Thomas Malaby, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, referring to the interests of gamers and the real-world government.

Privacy is another issue. When asked about whether there was privacy within games, the answer from a governance panel was unanimous. There is none. A subpoena could get those records easily enough.

As virtual worlds grow, legal topics will become increasingly important.

Fairfield said courts should be able to use existing laws to figure out virtual worlds. Fairfield said the courts are likely to let game developers do what they want. However, a consumer protection statute could always be enacted later.

One consensus builder was the future role of Congress in virtual worlds. No one on the panel wanted legislators adding statutes. "Congress doesn't do well with technology," said Fairfield.

Topics: Legal

About

Larry Dignan is Editor in Chief of ZDNet and SmartPlanet as well as Editorial Director of ZDNet's sister site TechRepublic. He was most recently Executive Editor of News and Blogs at ZDNet. Prior to that he was executive news editor at eWeek and news editor at Baseline. He also served as the East Coast news editor and finance editor at CN... Full Bio

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