The virtual online community Second Life has no police force, no courts and no taxes. Its users have exploded from roughly one million late last year to over six million users in just a few months. Now, stories of online crime, including child abuse and r-pe, are beginning to rear their ugly head in virtual utopia. 

Most of us are just grasping the concept of building our own avatar

… including purchasing g-nitals, let alone the idea of online r-pe. But the unseemly habits of some more advanced users are forcing us to ask tricky questions, like is virtual crime really a crime at all? And in a world that transcends borders, continents and countries, how can crime possibly be monitored and contained properly?

Businesses and advertisers like American Express and our own ABC have Second Life builds, Democratic presidential candidates have campaigned to SL citizens, Reuters has a news agency and you can find recruitment companies, esc-rt agencies, clothing designers and law firms there. But could these businesses decide that Second Life is no place to be if the seedier side of life takes over?

Second Life creator Philip Rosedale, and chief executive of owner Linden Lab, has been reluctant to aggressively police the virtual world, but the CEO admitted in a Second Life town meeting late last year that, “Longer term, Second Life is going to have to develop its own law or its own standards of behavior.”

Second Life’s terms of service dictate that each resident is “morally, socially and legally responsible for their opinions and behaviour in-world, and that illegal activity will not be tolerated” and there have been instances where Linden Lab has called in the FBI.

Here’s a snapshot of just a few of the online crimes taking place in Second Life:

Online rape:   …while individual avatars are supposedly prohibited from taking control of other avatars without permission, savvy users can still use scripts to force submission. As a result, Belgian police are now investigating an SL user’s allegations of a s-xual assault that took place entirely online. — Freakonomics

A virtual r-pe is by definition sudden, explicit and often devastating. If you’ve never immersed yourself in online life, you might not realise the emotional availability it takes to be a regular member of an internet community. — Wired

I have to agree that virtual r-pe shouldn’t be punishable as s-xual assault in the real world. But it does seem appropriate to set enforceable guidelines that allow virtual communities to combat these types of things — Salon  

Pa-dophilia: …we were contacted by German television network, ARD, which had captured images of two avatars, one that resembled an adult male and another that resembled a child, engaged in depicted s-xual conduct. Our investigations revealed the users behind these avatars to be a 54-year-old man and a 27-year-old woman. Both were immediately banned from Second Life.  — Second Life blog

I took the opportunity to use the SL search functionality and typed in ‘child’ – the result was everything from anti-child pornography groups through to children’s clothing and body-shape stores. The second location we teleported to contained the following images… — Sloz, Australia’s Second Life news source

Money laundering: …legal experts claim the lax regime could provide a haven for money launderers, fraudsters and even terrorists to hide and move funds … the criminal networks threatening to take advantage of the cyberspace world are all too real. Now a report drawn up for Britain’s Fraud Advisory Panel (FAP) is calling on the Government to extend real-world financial regulation into Second Life and similar games. — The Telegraph

Illegal gambling: Linden Lab called in the FBI to assess if its virtual casinos break US laws against online gambling. Steven Phillipsohn, a fraud litigation solicitor and chairman of the FAP’s cybercrime working group, said: “There’s nothing virtual about online crime, it is all too real. It is time government took this seriously. The legitimate benefits of virtual communities will prove enormous, but people need to be aware that this cutting-edge technology has a darker side. Money laundering is the obvious risk. — Online Casinos

Counterfeiting and breach of copyright: …a new program, nicknamed CopyBot, enables users to quickly copy characters, objects, and buildings, potentially eroding the value of people’s virtual property. — BusinessWeek

Share your Second Life experiences with Crikey by emailing [email protected].