Virtual Reality Exceptionalism

Gilad Yadin · 20 Vand. J. Ent. & Tech. 839

Abstract

Virtual reality is here. In just a few years, the technology moved from science fiction to the Internet, from specialized research facilities to living rooms. These new virtual reality environments are connected, collaborative, and social—built to deliver a subjective psychological effect that believably simulates spatial physical reality. Cognitive research shows that this effect is powerful enough that virtual reality users act and interact in ways that mirror real-world social and moral norms and behavior.

Contemporary cyberlaw theory is largely based on the notion that cyberspace is exceptional enough to warrant its own specific rules. This premise, a descendant of early cyberspace exceptionalism, may be dramatically undermined by the advent of virtual reality. This technology brings cyberspace conceptually and concretely close to the real world, blurring legally significant distinctions between cyberspace behavior and physical behavior, between “real,” “not real,” and “virtually real.”

There is an opportunity here. Some of the cyberspace-specific legal regimes that developed over the last twenty years are seriously flawed, especially in criminal law contexts. Computer-hacking legislation is overly broad and vague, resulting in the criminalization of minor Internet infractions and the chilling of digital freedoms; cyberharassment and cyberstalking laws are poorly enforced and ineffective, turning cyberspace into a hostile environment for many people; and government cybersurveillance norms have seriously upset the balance between public security and individual privacy, putting society on the path to an Orwellian surveillance state.

Virtual reality brings a new understanding of the human cyberspace behavior continuum that counteracts cyberspace exceptionalism, undermines contemporary cyberlaw theory, and presents an opportunity to move away from problematic
cyberspace-specific legal regimes and back towards the well-established laws of the real world.