Guest post by Gilad Yadin

The author doing research

When I began studying the legal implications of virtual reality technology, seeing or using an actual virtual reality system required access to a research laboratory or a specialized training facility; virtual reality was something most people associated with science fiction, it seemed futuristic and far-fetched. A few years ago, Facebook got very publicly into virtual reality and suddenly everyone was talking about affordable, connected, social virtual reality environments. These days, roughly $400 worth of virtual reality hardware allows anyone to interact with social contacts, through expressive avatars, in a three-dimensional spatial environment. The surging virtual reality market is estimated to reach $40 billion by 2020. Cyberspace is changing in ways that can no longer be ignored.

Unlike other media of the digital age, virtual reality is built to deliver a subjective psychological effect that believably simulates physical reality. Cognitive research shows that this effect is powerful enough so that virtual reality users act and interact in ways that mirror real-world social norms and behavior; they consistently apply similar values and moral judgement in virtual reality and in physical reality. In fact, virtual reality is so effective that psychologists use it to influence real life behavior—it helps rehabilitate offenders and treats phobias.

In many ways, cyberlaw relies on the assumption that cyberspace is normatively and behaviorally different from physical reality. This assumption is the basis for many cyberspace-specific legal regimes—it is the reason we have hacking laws, cyberprivacy laws, cyberharassment laws and others. But if people behave in the same way in virtual reality cyberspace and in the physical world, have the same values, make similar decisions, expect the same norms and protections, what is the justification for cyberspace-specific laws? Hacking cases can be prosecuted as criminal trespass or burglary, cyberspace users may enjoy real-world privacy protection and physical harassment rules can be used to enforce cyberharassment norms.

A move away from cyberspace-specific legal regimes may be a good thing, some of these relatively new regimes have become problematic in terms of balancing individual freedoms and other interests while the laws of the physical world are tried and long-standing. As cyberspace draws, through virtual reality, conceptually and behaviorally closer to physical reality, cyberlaw may need to draw closer to classic law.

There is something fascinating about virtual reality, it is a concept that captures the mind. Philosophers of technology suggest that virtual reality expresses a human desire to break out of the limitations of physical existence, psychologists take an interest in the technology’s ability to manipulate consciousness and emotion, science fiction writers say it offers a glimpse into humanity’s future, for technology innovators it is just “really cool”. For me virtual reality is fascinating for all these reasons, but also because it takes us beyond trying to regulate technology, back towards where the law needs to be—regulating human behavior.

Gilad Yadin’s Article Virtual Reality Exceptionalism was just published in Volume 20 of the Vᴀɴᴅᴇʀʙɪʟᴛ Jᴏᴜʀɴᴀʟ ᴏꜰ Eɴᴛᴇʀᴛᴀɪɴᴍᴇɴᴛ & Tᴇᴄʜɴᴏʟᴏɢʏ Lᴀᴡ.


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