Practising law in the ‘real world’?

An increasing number of law firms are opening, or considering to open, offices in ‘Second Life’, the virtual three-dimensional world.

An increasing number of law firms are opening, or considering opening, offices in ‘Second Life’, the virtual three-dimensional world.

But what are the security risks associated with conducting business in alternative digital worlds, and are lawyers aware of the risks?

The current market

Research shows that 7 per cent of people aged 12 to 24 regularly visit a virtual world. Second Life operated by Linden Labs is the most well-known option. To participate, you download the software, register a character (known as an ‘avatar’) and start exploring. The current ‘population’ is over 1 million.

Where there is virtual life, virtual businesses follows. Companies including Coca-Cola, IBM and Vodafone have all set up offices (or ‘islands’ as they are known) in Second Life, to advertise their products and services. Imperial College Hospital has built a virtual hospital, Reuters has a virtual news bureau, and the band Duran Duran has a virtual island on which to perform ‘live’.

The currency in Second Life, the Linden dollar, exchanges at about L$250 to the dollar and more than $1.5m worth of these Linden dollars are exchanged in Second Life every day. However, anomalies exist that make Second Life a potentially hazardous place to conduct business.

Primarily, in Second Life’s Terms of Service Credit it states that the Linden dollar has no legal value. Predictably, a US lawyer has already filed a suit against Linden Lab, alleging that virtual property worth thousands of dollars was unfairly ‘confiscated’.

The legal quandaries are myriad and courts have already heard cases of alleged frauds in virtual real estate transactions.

The US Congress is investigating the scale of commerce in virtual worlds, to assess the possible tax implications. It is for these reasons that businesses have so far been reticent to use virtual worlds other than for advertising and PR purposes.

Self-governing environment

These virtual worlds have for the most part been self-governing, but Second Life was recently forced to close all its casinos to comply with US laws on online gaming.

HR issues and employees’ security and protection, even in a virtual world, also need to be considered. Social networking on these sites is inherently dangerous, with sexual harassment, stalking and other potentially unsavoury encounters are serious risks.

T-Mobile is reported to be considering the use of virtual worlds for recruitment – there are obvious questions here as to the bona fides of an avatar.

Copyright and IP infringement seem inevitable. Lord Triesman, a minister at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has suggested that copyright laws need to be as stringent in virtual worlds as in the real one.

“In virtual worlds, they may choose to make copies of other people’s goods, or use their logos. It’s a problem. As long as such infringing action goes on, IP owners will have to be vigilant and capable of taking appropriate action.”

Lord Puttnam, who is chairman of a Futurelab think-tank, said that virtual worlds pose “difficult philosophical questions”, such as whether virtual possessions or concepts are real enough to own.

The issue of culpability also needs resolving, before someone pleads in criminal proceedings that actions were not theirs but those of a “virtual person”.

The real risks

From an evidential and forensic perspective, preliminary experimentation to ascertain what – if anything – is recorded to a computer’s hard disk when an avatar goes exploring in Second Life has shown precious little trace evidence, despite interaction with other ‘residents’.

There certainly was no discernable audit trail of any of the discussions that took place in this virtual world.

Therefore you cannot rely on any proof or probative evidence when venturing into this environment.

Fundamentally, with the non-existent user authentication measures in place, you cannot and should not trust any avatar implicitly within these virtual worlds. User identification is currently minimal and unverified. Accordingly, virtual transactions, virtual commercial arrangements and virtual contracts are best avoided.

Second Life is a free wheeling playground – by all means advertise your products and services there, but don’t place any confidence in this forum to deliver goods, money, love, companionship or anything else. In the virtual world, you are dealing with total strangers who may deny they even exist.

Are you confident enough to buy and sell in this ‘market’? Get real.

Edward Wilding is chief technical officer at Data Genetics International