This does, of course, open up all sorts of interesting ethical and legal questions. Let's lift out a few salacious quotations:
"German prosecutors have launched an investigation to track down anonymous participants of the virtual computer game Second Life who are reportedly buying sex with other players who pose as children, as well as offering child pornography for sale."
Sex? not quite I think. Getting to sets of bytes and pixels to cavort hardly amounts to sex in my opinion, I do find it interesting how something which is by definition virtual and simulated gets to become confused with the Real Thang; does this say anything about the state of society? I`m quite sure Baudrillard - of 'Hyperreality' fame' would have something interesting to say about this.
"Some players choose to dress up as child figures, but with no sexual motivation, purchasing "skins" to make them look like minors, but that do not as a rule depict the private parts of the body. There are even adoption agencies that offer lonely "children" the chance to have a virtual family.
But the established Second Life practice of so-called "Age Play", in which players request sex with other players who dress up as child avatars, has encouraged a growth in players posing as children in order to make money. "
Interesting except for the fact that the 'money' is not actually money. It is a Second Life dollar which can only be spent in the Second Life world; so strictly speaking we can`t speak of buying sex because there is no buying and there is no sex. We don`t confuse playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with committing Grand Larceny. I don`t see how this is any different.
"It has already attracted much criticism both from inside and outside the imaginary world. Child protection agencies say it has encouraged people with paedophile tendencies to play out their darkest fantasies and could have a knock-on effect in the real world. Bestiality, or sex with animals, is becoming increasingly popular on the site, which now has over six million players and is growing by an average of 800,000 a month"
I find this a dodgy argument, I find it frankly preferable that a peadophile 'plays out their darkest fantasies' with a set of pixels than with my neighbour's four year old. Lurid? Yes, no doubt. Immoral? Quite so. Criminal? Hmmmm... not so sure. What is however more dodgy about this argument that it postulates an unproven knock-on effect which is then used as a legitimation for criminalisation. We could, of course, hypothesize duch a knock-on effect if in a year's time we find that the number of sexually abused goats in Germany has skyrocketed, but until then, no go.
By cheapening the concept of child-abuse (by extending the definition to cover two adults (as under 18s are not allowed on SL) having their pixels cavort, with one set of pixels being dressed up as a child) we lose our powers of distinction between the dangerous and the weird, which is not where we should want to go.
On another note, I also find it worrying that we are slowly but surely moving away from one of the basic principles of Criminal Law: the principle that you are to be sentenced for what you have actually done, not for what you might possibly do later on. This sort of preemptive criminal proceedings could, perhaps be justified if we could predict the future with certainty. It is, I think, moot that this is not the case (yes, this is the stuff where Minority Report is made of)