Second Life DoS attacks raise interesting damages issues under Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

News.com has run a story about this past weekend’s Denial of Service (“DoS”) attacks on the servers for Second Life, the increasingly popular virtual world. Second Life is a good example of how wildly complex some online virtual worlds have become. Far from being merely for simple entertainment, Second Life supports its own economy (based on a currency called the Linden), and facilitates sophisticated human relationships. [More on Second Life.]

Linden Lab, the purveyor of Second Life, most likely has a strong cause of action under the the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (“CFAA”) against those responsible for the DoS attacks. What is most interesting about the situation, however, is the way in which the attacks demonstrate how immersion in a virtual world can bring the nature of damages for unlawful online conduct closer to one’s heart.

Traditionally, the nature of damages for violations of the CFAA have been rather predictable, and closely tied to a commercial context. For example, in Shurgard Storage Centers, Inc. v. Safeguard Self Storage, Inc., 119 F.Supp.2d 1121 (W.D. Wash. 2000), the plaintiff successfully pled damage to its computers where former employees allegedly stole trade secrets and handed them over to a competitor. In EF Cultural Travel BV v. Explorica, Inc., 274 F.3d 577 (1st Cir. 2001) the plaintiff could recover the payment of consultant fees it had to incur in order to assess the effect of the defendant’s alleged content scraping. In U.S. v. Mitra, 405 F.3d 492 (7th Cir., 2005), the court upheld a criminal conviction under the CFAA where the defendant sent out a strong radio signal that disabled police communications.

Some of the damages in the Second Life situation could be a bit more off-the-wall. The News.com article quotes Robin Harper, Linden Lab’s vice president of community development and support as saying, regarding the attacks, “It disrupts events. People have weddings planned or a party or something, and it gets in the way.”

These effects are probably not what Congress had in mind when it enacted the CFAA. As more “life” populates virtual worlds, however, the susceptibility to harm is likely to change in form. The Second Life situation could be a harbinger of a transforming aspect of damages.