Legal and Ethical Implications Involving Social Networks and Virtual Worlds


In this section, we review some documented and hypothetical incidents that have happened or could happen in MMORPGs and 3D social networks and use these cases to build a table where we classify and compare different virtual environments and their incidence of child abuse under different scenarios.

Child Abuse in MMORPGs

People that produce, trade, and consume child pornography generally use web pages, emails, and peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs, among other Internet services, for carrying out this illegal activity. More recently, pedophiles have been trading child pornography material through blogs, microblogs, and other recent types of web 2.0 social networks, and are taking advantage of video games in the form of online 3D virtual worlds, called MMORPG.

This type of videogame runs on personal computers, as well as on game boxes (also called consoles), which are dedicated computers for playing video games, running the games either as stand-alone or online for multi-participant use. There have been reported cases of pedophiles using MMORPGs for committing child abuse. For instance, a man in the US was sentenced to jail because he met a minor through an online MMORPG game called Warhawk that runs on a popular brand of the game box. After forming a trusting relationship with the child, the stalker convinced the minor to take nude pictures of herself, and later he traded these images to other pedophiles.

Child Abuse in 3D Social Networks

A number of child pornography issues have also been found in Second Life (SL), a very popular 3D social network (a 3D social network is an online and collaborative virtual world where its users socialize via avatars), which has experienced great growth in the number of users since it was created in 2003 by Linden Lab, a San Francisco based company. SL consists of a huge online 3D virtual world called Metaverse. The Metaverse world contains designated areas called islands, where its users can purchase or rent from Linden Lab or from other users for a fee.

Millions of users have registered at SL, where they meet, socialize, play, and do almost anything they want as in the real world through virtual personifications of themselves called avatars. SL users can communicate through their avatars employing voice over IP (VoIP) technology, text messages, and gestures. Users can contribute to SL by developing and uploading graphical 3D objects to SL’s virtual world, such as buildings, houses, plants, cars, etc. It is also possible to upload, show, and trade images and video files in SL.

Types of Child Pornography and Child Abuse on the Internet

We have conducted a non-exhaustive summary of the problems on child pornography and child abuse in general that have appeared on Internet services, social networks, and MMORPGs, as shown in Table 1. As we can see from Table 1, almost all the child pornography-related problems present in conventional Internet services are also present in 3D social networks. Since MMORPGs and social networks in the form of online virtual worlds are of recent and widespread use, there is little research and few applications today on how to prevent and overcome this problem worldwide.


In this section, we describe the similarities of incidents in the real and the virtual world. We then outline some important international efforts to address the problem from a global and sociolegal perspective. Finally, we briefly analyze the position adopted by one of the most widespread 3D social networks.

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Child Exploitation in the Converged Online/Offline Environments

The disturbing occurrence and complex nature of child abuse in 3D social networks and MMORPGs is a result of the convergence of the offline and online environments (Bloomfield & Duranske, 2009). By interpreting the use or misuse of technology in the online environments as a reflection of what has/is actually taken place in the offline environment e.g.

society in general recognizes that measures need to be taken to fight this criminal behavior. Child exploitation and abuse are violations that are taking place on a daily basis in the offline environment and have been transferred to the online environment by its perpetrators, and consequently, the child exploitation and abuse have also moved to the Internet.

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