The lawsuits began almost as soon as Pokemon Go launched. Residents found their front gardens had inadvertently been transformed into PokeGyms, attracting crowds of eager gamers at all hours of the night. Car accidents occurred when reckless drivers took their eyes off the road to try to catch a Charmander or a Clefairy. Criminals gangs were using Pokemon lures to tempt unsuspecting players to remote locations to rob them, while police wasted their time investigating reports of men “acting strangely” while playing the game.
Up until this point, the legal issues surrounding Niantic’s viral game have mostly concerned run-ins between individuals. But this week the stakes were raised, with not one but two national governments getting involved. Ruslan Sokolovsky faces up to five years in jail for catching Pokemon in a church in Yekaterinburg, Russia, while a petition has been filed to the high court in Gujarat state, India, demanding the game’s ban. It is worth noting that Pokemon Go has not officially been released in either country.
Russia and India have little in common when it comes to individual rights. One is a former Soviet giant, barely democratic with a history of suppression and clamping down on personal freedom. The other is a lively – if corrupt – emerging economy, weighted down by bureaucracy but bustling with new ideas and on the verge of becoming an innovation hub in the region. But the complaints against Pokemon Go, coming just days apart, are identical: disrespect to religion. Sokolovsky is charged with inciting hatred and offending religious sensibilities – the same charge that sent the members of the girlband Pussy Riot to prison for two years in 2012. The petitioners in Gujarat, meanwhile, claim the game is offensive and blasphemous to vegetarian Hindus and Jains, because virtual Pokemon eggs appear in places of worship. Instead of throwing out the case, the Gujarat high court has issued notices asking the developers to respond.
The international community has, for the most part, reacted with outrage in both cases. Sokolovsky, a prominent Russian YouTuber, has become a symbol of civil disobedience: the video of his ‘crime’ has been watched over a million times, and other social activists in Russia have protested by playing Pokemon Go in other religious spaces. In Gujarat, the response is more one of disbelief and ridicule, although Indian MP Shashi Tharoor did tweet his condemnation at the court’s decision:
To file in the “Only in India” category! WouId be funny if such frivolous cases didn’t clog our judicial system: https://t.co/l3ZD9lLdRL
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) September 7, 2016
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That said, neither government comes out of this looking good, and however these two cases are handled will have serious ramifications for the development of the technology going forward.
Pokemon Go, as we all know, is just the beginning when it comes to Augmented Reality, which is on the cusp of upending our lives as we know it. It won’t be long before everything from healthcare to education to city planning is affected – and you can be sure that advertisers are already looking at ways to take advantage. What is clear is that governments haven’t got a clue how to handle it. If a virtual Speero egg in a Hindu temple is enough to cause a lawsuit, what about adverts for alcohol, or dating sites, or porn? How are the courts going to deal with copyright infringement, or the safety of AR tourist attractions, or taxing products that do not actually exist in the real world? It’s not an issue of if, but when, and the default approach of a blanket ban will just force a budding new enterprise underground, where it will remain a risk to public security.
Governments everywhere in the world are going to need a whole new legal system to address these issues, to look at practical new policies around copyright, free speech, trespassing, safety and cybercrime, which amount to more than sticking their fingers in their ears and pretending the technology does not exist. The countries that are fastest to adapt the Augmented Reality landscape – and my money is on Estonia – will be far more successful than the repressors and the censors.
At any rate, Russia and India had better get used to Pokemon Go. Because when the real trouble with Augmented Reality hits, it will be a lot more serious than a Pikachu in a church.