Doing Real Time for Virtual Crime
If someone took your house key, went into your home, and stole all your stuff when you weren’t looking, I bet you’d be pretty upset. You would most likely want the thief to be caught and brought to justice. But what if this was done to you in a virtual world? Do the same principles apply? Dutch law enforcement seems to think so. Recently a Dutch 17-year-old was arrested for stealing over $5800 worth of virtual furniture in an online community called “Habbo Hotel.” This is sort of a low tech, 2-dimensional version of “Second Life” (think old school version of “The Sims“). Users create an avatar and use real money to buy items to decorate their virtual pads. The site attracts a lot of teens across the pond, but it hasn’t really caught on in the United States. So your probably thinking “Okay, I understand stealing is wrong, but being jailed for taking furniture that isn’t even real? Isn’t that a little harsh?” But let’s think about it this way: People pay real money for both real and virtual furniture. Should it really matter which form was taken as long as it resulted in the loss of something with monetary value? And just in case you were thinking of giving the argument that it was just the avatar sinning, I should note that the person’s avatar didn’t literally go into another avatar’s virtual home and sneak off with his or her possessions. The accused teenager and possibly five of his friends used phishing and imposter websites to steal the passwords of other users. They then logged in to those accounts and got away with the virtual loot. I guess that means there are really two elements of theft here: stolen passwords and stolen goods. And going back to my original example, it seems to me that stealing someone’s password for his or her account is a lot like stealing the key to a person’s home in real life. After all, keys and passwords both enable you to access your belongings.
So what does all this mean? I suppose it all comes down to what’s real and what’s fantasy. It’s a little bizarre that we even have to contemplate situations like this. As the discussions in my Innovations and New Technology class have noted, technological advancements are always bringing up new ethical questions and blurring the lines of reality. With any new technology, there are always going to be people who will find ways to use it in a deviant manner. However, this case shows that the consequences of these actions can be very real. Hopefully people will begin to act more responsibly as more of them realize that the punishment for virtual crimes could mean a bit more than just a stay in the virtual slammer.