Ethical Issues

BEAMING raises a number of ethical and legal issues that are familiar from existing virtual reality and telecommunications technologies. It also raises several novel issues.

In the near term, the primary ethical issues raised by BEAMING relate to safety and privacy.In particular, that BEAMING interactions will occur in actual places (rather than virtual ones) raises privacy concerns over and above existing technologies.

In the longer term, BEAMING and related future technologies could raise ethical issues relating to the fundamental nature of social interactions and concepts of personhood.  Many social exchanges are based on shared public space, in which agents have symmetric access to information, and symmetric capacity for action.  BEAMING interactions are based on both virtual and physical spaces, so BEAMING could potentially change the ethical concepts of human action and responsibility, and transform the character of social interaction.

BEAMING involves a real time interaction between the visitor in one place, and his avatar and the locals in a remote location.  This presents a real challenge for the application of existing legal frameworks.

Information technologies often raise questions about the fundamental right of privacy that have been fully recognized worldwide.  BEAMING and similar technologies will require that personal information be filed firstly with the service provider. Additionally, and depending on the purpose of its use, other personal data might be collected by the visitor or by the locals. Therefore, BEAMING and other telepresence technologies raise particular data and privacy protection issues.

In law, only human beings are capable of performing voluntary acts and therefore the avatar will not be deemed a subject of law. This acknowledgment leads to the primary conclusion that the consequences of acts performed by the visitor’s avatar will be attributed to the visitor.

BEAMING raises multiple liability issues such as civil, criminal, professional and products liability.  The interaction between the visitor and the locals may result in breach of a contract or even in a tortuous conduct. The issues of liability would be hard to define if the applicable law were dubious. Therefore it is important to determine what law should apply to the visitor, his avatar and the locals, given that they may be located in different legal jurisdictions. Conflict of laws rules will be required to resolve these issues.

This work is reported in a BEAMING publication authored by Matt Longo, Estefania Santos and Patrick Haggard of UCL.

For aditional discussion on social, legal and ethical aspects of "presence" technologies, see D2.1 Presence Research and Technology: Social Impact, Ethical implications, Legal aspects and Gender Issues and recommendations for research and policy ISSUE 2. from the PEACH project.

Legal Issues

BEAMING, will undoubtedly create some challenges to existing legal structures. At the current time there would appear to be no specific legislation in the EU, or anywhere else, expressly covering the use of BEAMING, or other presence technologies. Some of the issues raised by BEAMING might potentially cause legal difficulties, in that they were not originally designed with this technology in mind. Because of this, in some circumstances current laws might have to be adjusted to cover its use, or new laws might have to be developed if society/governments seek to offer greater protection to users, or alternatively do not wish to inhibit the use of BEAMING technologies.

The question as to how the legal principles that are in place will apply to BEAMING, or other presence technologies, has been subject to very little sustained academic or judicial analysis thus far. This is not unsurprising because BEAMING is essentially a new technology which is at an early development stage.There are a number of potential concerns when considering BEAMING technologies that have implications on legal systems:

(a) Social misrepresentation: There is greater scope for misrepresentation in digital networks – this particularly holds true in respect of communications in augmented reality gatherings. Avatars potentially bring with them a degree of anonymity, suggesting that there could potentially be public concerns if BEAMING technologies allowed greater mental and physical contact across distances than previously existed. An example of public acceptability in this regard is the fact that BEAMING technologies might be used for new forms of sexual liaisons, with users misrepresenting their true identity.

(b) Professional misrepresentation: A further example of misrepresentation is in a professional context. For example, there could be people in BEAMING networks pretending to be medical professionals. Whilst this can happen in ‘real-life’ as well as augmented reality, the latter would seem to be in part distinguishable. People place a lot of trust in medical professionals and relationships are normally made through physical examinations in places which the patient can physically attend - such as a hospital, doctor’s surgery, or a dental practice. Treatment by remote monitoring heightens the possibility of professional misrepresentation.

(c) New avenues of allowing criminal behaviour: Users of augmented reality might be at risk from physical interactions in remote locations. BEAMING potentially allows for certain unauthorised activities to take place, including stalking (including physical contact), industrial spying (through monitoring business meetings), either with or without the knowledge of the BEAMING user. Again the anonymity of avatars acting in different jurisdictions could make policing and preventing certain crimes much harder than the same or similar crimes committed in conventional circumstances. There could also feasibly be a number of ‘crimes’ taking place in a BEAMED environment that do not fall under the jurisdiction of current laws, because they were either not envisaged by legislators, or because of the actual drafting of the legislation (e.g. which might require the person to physically be in the country when the offence was committed).

(d) Jurisdictional unease: It is likely that some people will have concerns about the technology being operated between different countries and interacting with people elsewhere. An example of this in a medical context is that patients in one country might consider that medical professionals in another jurisdiction might not be as well qualified, or the treatment as rigorous as would be the case in their own country. In case of any serious problems, to whom might these patients complain, or seek legal address or compensation from? A further example here could be business concerns with how contract law differs to the situation in their own country.

(e) Privacy and information security: In the modern world much data relating to our lives is held electronically. BEAMING would seem in some respects to go beyond most forms of electronic databases and social interaction tools, in terms of the private information that can be recorded electronically. There are potential issues of security of electric communications from avatar misrepresentation and hacking. Personal data or interactions might also be used by others or sold for commercial reasons. BEAMING opens up the possibility of recording physical data such as heartbeat/pulse, sensitive medical data (such as physiotherapy or treatments by remote physical monitoring) and other forms of physical contact – including possibly sexual contact. These could potentially bring to the fore concerns about confidentiality, and the security of data that might be recorded.

(f) Having legal clarity: The information society in the EU represents a new and revolutionary model to market and deliver products or services. However, this can pose serious challenges to traditional legal values and traditional legal rules. BEAMING allows individuals’ bodies to appear in one or more locations, other than where they are physically present, and to participate in social exchanges at those locations. Persons and interactions, or at the least the sensory inputs and motor outputs related to those persons are effectively transmitted over networks. There are issues of physical and mental interaction between the visitor and BEAMED representation.

BEAMING raises a number of legal questions that have not specifically been dealt with before. Original legal analysis is given in the project in relation to its possible impact, when operational, on many discrete areas of law – including (1) criminal law, (2) contract law, (3) privacy and security, (4) provision of services, (5) intellectual property and (6) evidence.

This work is reported in a BEAMING publication authored by Ray Purdy of the Faculty of Laws, UCL.