As most people who have been around Second Life for any length of time should know, Linden Labs, the developers and owners of Second Life (SL), have touted from the beginning that their Virtual World (their VR) is to be “…for the citizens, by the citizens””. This is intended to mean that Second Life is your world and your vision. So, Linden Lands (LL) said, “Make it happen, citizens! And good luck!” When Second Life began it had virtually no boundaries what so ever, and because of that, Linden Labs inherently allowed many things into the foundation of SL which they later would come to regret.
As I have researched the recent history of actions taken by LL to eliminate and restrict certain forms of content, I have run into harsh statements of citizen angst as well as ambiguous retorts from LL itself. I have heard it mentioned that LL invited us here to SL to build this world for them, and now because of what we built, we are no longer welcome. I have heard people say that LL is reneging on its claims to allow this VR to be entirely for and by the citizens. The question has been posed, if we are supposed to be adults only in SL already, then why restrict adult content? I have seen LL respond merely by citing laws and regulations and new in-world guidelines without offering much explanation as to why such things are suddenly required after four years of successful operation. There has also been a noticeable lack of content to replace what has been removed.
The demise of SL casinos was a subject of great debate and concern since a rather substantial chunk of the SL economy relied upon online gambling. And from what I have read, honestly, LL did not want to remove them from SL; they were forced to by Real Life (RL) restrictions. You could consider that a VR like SL should be exempt from such physical boundaries, as SL really does tear down most social, cultural and distance barriers. RL governments don’t see things that way. So, aside from idealistic discussions and arguments, the laws that apply to the locations of physical server boxes running a VR inextricably apply to the VR itself. LL abolished gambling to protect themselves from lawsuits, deeming the potential economic losses incurred to be less than that of litigation.
The same thing has begun to happen where certain types of role play are concerned. Not only LL, but individual national governments are responding to the purported absolute free nature of SL. As most of us know, there is a subculture of child role-playing in SL. Most of them are innocent and use the role play for purposes like reliving a good childhood, replacing a very bad childhood, or just having one at all later in life. Then there are those that cause the hammer of judgment and the stares of accusation and punishment to fall on the rest; the ones that use child-play to engage in pedophilic acts that are illegal almost globally. The actions of those few that get the most recognition and press exhibition formulate stereotypes that harm the freedoms of others.
Regardless of fairness or a little empathy, many Land Owners in SL have elected to put heavy restrictions on child-players. Some SIMS that I have visited have billboards that clearly prohibit the presence of child-play with no uncertain terms that they are strictly enforcing the elimination of pedophilia and virtual child pornography. I am in absolute full agreement with the stance against such things, but I have dear friends who child-play in healthy, even admirable ways who are suffering as victims of the old conundrum, “Do we throw the good out with the bad?”
Linden Labs thus has decided to do something which I think might have been inevitable. They have found a very clever way of forcing citizens to adhere to their new rules while having other citizens also accountable to report and hence punish those that ignore them. Yes, SL will remain your world, created by you, conceived by you, and now, policed by you. All of the responsibility is diverted from the creators of the tool to the shoulders of those who use or misuse it. Or, as a dear friend of mine said to me earlier when we discussed this, “So if little Johnny logs on to Second Life and finds “Iniquity Island”, he will have had to actively lie and fake information, so LL is off the hook.”
So, what exactly is the coming flood? What rains approach to cause such alarm?
Linden Labs announced recently that they would be introducing Adult Content Flagging in a near-future release of the client. Here is the opening quote from the Second Life Blog concerning this implementation.
On August 29, we announced the beta test of identity verification (IDV). As Robin Linden explained, the goal of IDV is to increase trust, by enabling Residents to voluntarily verify parts of their identity, and giving content creators and landowners the ability to restrict access to content that is inappropriate to minors. In this post, I’ll expand on restricted content and how to flag your parcels.
What is defined as Restricted Content?
As a general rule, Restricted Content is any content that is explicitly sexual or excessively violent in nature. For guidance, consider AO-Rated (Adults Only) video games or R-rated movies.
To summarize the rest of the pre-release statement, this is being done to protect the occasional minors that might break the rules and create an SL account out of good conscience. Currently there is no age verification system in place, but that is coming too, of course. If accounts are left unverified, they will not be able to see Mature content nor enter SIMS flagged with Mature content. This is called an “option”, but if you read the Blog, it is a demand that puts anyone not activating the flag on their Mature content in jeopardy of individual responsibility lawsuits if minors encounter their content. The Blog then commands all “responsible” citizens to report un-flagged Mature content to protect everyone from litigations.
Realistically, though, what can LL do about these issues? They need to cover themselves to protect the greater interest of their fledgling society and its growing population. But, the dilemma is, how do you protect such a global melting pot of cultures whose initial design is to remove all physical limitations and divisions? In saying that, the question arises, “Who is to say what is right and what is wrong?” Some RL cultures allow pedophilia. Some RL cultures don’t allow their citizens to carry guns while others encourage it. Some cultures rely heavily upon metaphysics to govern their people while others still will murder those who attempt to bring faith and religion into their national borders.
Change is necessary. But too much change from an original model without adequate contingencies will cripple or destroy any project or endeavor. The removal of so much content venue is devastating when done in large chunks. Actions like these need to be metered out slowly, as originally SL was designed to allow all things from all residents. SL is still licking its wounds and trying to recover from the last upheaval in the LL campaign of recognizing the necessity of “guidelines”. But is LL’s allowing us to make decisions about adult content in SL an evasion tactic, or is it really the lesser of two evils that allows us to keep SL a little bit more the way we would like it?
In all fairness to LL, let me conjecture how much more inane things might become were they to attempt to police and restrict content and account creations by other standard conventions. Higher levels of verifications in account creation would be established. To prevent potentials, only certain account types would have the privilege to create unique objects. Travel among SIMS might be restricted based on avatar attachments. Or, to prevent offending anyone at all, perhaps avatar content should be intentionally limited to adult humans with necessary underwear and excluding all role play. Perhaps in the wide-sweeping ensuing need for identity verifications, your avatar could be pre-customized to you by gender, age, ethnicity, etc. Why not take things too far to protect the interest of larger businesses in the future as they seek to sell, buy or hire? Without previously established guidelines and a volatile TOC, all things become a possibility.
Having presented all I could derive from this issue, what are the conclusions we should draw from all of this?
First, citizens in SL cherish their anonymity. Even live musicians sometimes protect their real names from exposure. Many have seriously rejected the idea of age verification let alone full account verification involving submission of payment information. This sort of verification will be required to see Mature content once the new flagging policy is introduced. Speculation is that the population of SL might decline as a result; or that businesses and parcels will suffer loss of sales from viable potential customers that choose not to verify their accounts yet might be interested in some mature products were they to stumble across it.
Secondly, there are many businesses in SL that do real-time hiring of employees through VR’s like SL. Most of these businesses require RL data for hiring and are pushing for standardized data disclosures. Many vendors, businesses and institutions in SL are looking forward to stricter verification policies to protect them in their arrays of transactions, even if that means ignoring individual concerns about identity protection. After all, if you are unwilling to share who you are in RL, then you simply must be a perpetrator of some sort or have something terrible to hide.
In summary, consider that the coming flood is universal. This is not just a rain that will fall on the SL community alone. And this is no cause at all to jump off the SL ship, so to speak. Standardized age and identity verifications are coming to the astronomically huge and ever-growing internet. This is necessary to avoid litigation as digital community policies cross electronically irrelevant national border lines. The whole purpose of internet relations could ultimately fall into the same foolish traps that RL has suffered for millennia. We could be forced to find ways of tolerating virtual segregation based on race, color, religion, and even species; or litigations inspired by ill-perceived wrongs or greedy opportunists.
VR’s cannot help us to escape the human condition. Our pride, our problems, our prejudices, our limitations all follow us wherever we go. Hence, at best, VR’s can only provide us with soothing comfort from facing off with RL and add another measure of convenience to the struggle. VR developers therefore must take the physical motivations of the people behind the avatars into consideration when establishing rules and regulations. A foundation of boundless abandon is an ideal metaverse on the storyboards, but in practical application it will still run into human limitations; where they lack adequate empathy, compassion, or willingness to understand, and yet embrace avarice, hate and fear. Just like everything and everyone else, VR’s must compensate for these failings by establishing boundaries that are both fair and enforced and that only change drastically after having been carefully reviewed for potential rejection or retaliation.
I would encourage LL to hire consultants to help them maintain realistic projected user response and financial impact when adding drastic policy modifications like Adult/Mature Content Flagging. Protecting yourself is essential, but sometimes a little sacrifice is required to regain the trust of the kingdom you lord. Compromise from all sides of a conflict is sometimes the best path to choose. Consider one another. As always, truly try to love one another. These are integral in sustaining any society. And SL is a beautiful world that is well worth preserving.