There’s a case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court which could potentially have
a huge impact on future computing.
The case is Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, and you can read the U.S. government’s brief submitted to the Court here.
A summary of the legal issues can be found here.
What this case boils down to is whether computer-generated images should be treated the same as the real thing when it comes to certain crimes. In this particular case, child pornography.
Congress did just that in the Child Pornography Act of 1996. It said that computer-generated images of children engaged in sexual activity are just as illegal as the real thing.
Until recently, you needed to abuse real children. That’s a big reason why owning it has been made illegal.
However, if you can use a computer to make child pornography without children, there’s no children abused.
The issue becomes: Does that make a difference?
Keep in mind that mere possession of the material gets you serious hard time. If Mr. PedoPervert just sits home and does nothing else but look at these pictures, he’s guilty of a felony even though no children were used.
The U.S. government says “No.” It says computer-generated child porn can stimulate the desire for real sex with children, can be used to seduce real children, or can be used by pedophiles to trade for the “real thing.” It also points out that trying to prove which pieces of porn are real and which are computer-generated could be impossible to prove.
The defendants in this case are not defending anything done with this material. That falls under other criminal laws, and they have no problem with that.
Rather, they argue that the mere possession of computer-generated material is different because nothing bad had to be done in order to make it, unlike the “real stuff.”
Why Should I Care About These Perverts?
How many of you play games in which you kill opponents? If some game-addicted loon decides to trade his rail gun for a real one, and blows away half his school, Congress might get stampeded into passing a law making ownership of such games a felony.
Then the DOJ will make some of the same kind of arguments they’re making about the pedophiles about you.
You’ll say, “But I never committed any real crime.” So does the person just looking at computer-generated child images.
They’re both virtual activities.
You may say, “But what they do is disgusting!” Believe me, there are plenty of voting people out there who think blowing away people all the time is just about as disgusting.
This court case may well set precedence for future court cases in determining whether virtual activities get treated the same as real activities.
Not necessarily, though. The court might find, for instance, that the likelihood of a virtual activity leading to a real one is the determining factor. That opens another Pandora’s Box, though. At what point does “leakage” from unreal to real stop being OK? How many KillerGame massacres does it take to make KillerGame illegal?
Let’s jump ahead a few decades. Rather than blowing away pixels on a monitor, virtual reality has become a reality. You are in the game.
If you kill a character, could that be considered a crime? If you molest a character, is that a crime, too? Can the government stick its nose into your holodeck?
This court case could go far in deciding whether or not the government can do just that in the future.
Now you may or may not think that’s a good idea. The virtual world our children or grandchildren are likely to see could have staggering ramifications.
Take one tame example. If you could have the equivalent of a virtual singles bar, and have any virtual person you want, anytime you want, no bar bills, no diseases, no nagging, no breakups, how many single guys would go in there and never come out again? Bet single women would really like that.
Don’t laugh. What does an option like that do to things like marriage and birth rates? You don’t think government might get interested in that?
And that’s a trifle. What if you get addicted to the VR hit game of 2052, “Rape, Loot and Pillage?” Think that might result in some socially maladjusted folks?
For the politically-correct out there, if these don’t faze you, how about a game like “Plantation”, where you get to beat, kill and molest your slaves? Still think that’s OK?
I can certainly see both sides of the argument. But if the Supreme Court decides that virtually-derived activities can be treated the same as real ones, that
will have a major impact on what we and our descendants can or cannot do with our computers.