Monday, August 22, 2005

Linden Lab: All-Knowing?




"He's making a list,
And checking it twice;
Gonna find out who's naughty and nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!"

-- Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

During a casual conversation in Second Life recently, a friend told me something which strikes me as, well, a pretty big deal.

I consider this person to be a source you can rely on. Their claim is something that I have never actually heard another resident suggest. If they're right, the implications seem to change the face of what law, privacy and government mean in Second Life. Will privacy advocates wring their hands in mass hysteria and reach for their tinfoil? Will griefers and criminals across the grids tremble in fear?

The claim is this:

Every word you speak in Second Life via chat or instant messages, is logged by Linden Lab. Not 30-minute logs. Not day logs. Logs that go back at least as far as last year. Possibly further.

Now, it may or may not be true. Although it's incredible, it does seem logistically possible.

So I posted a Hotline to Linden question (note: the resident I mentioned in the question is not the friend who made the logging claim). Robin Linden replied: 'Logs for chat and IM aren't permanent, although I can't say how long we keep them'.

You can't be certain whether Robin physically doesn't know how long they keep them or whether their policy prevents her from revealing it. I think it's safe to assume the latter. Policy-wise, there's obvious reasons why they won't be specific.

Less firmly, my friend also suggests that Linden Lab may log even more detailed information than just chat. Possibly everything from object rezzes to gesture triggers. The works.

To my mind, the first claim seems plausible but the second beggars belief. In any case, it presents an interesting opportunity to think about what these could mean for our second lives and the future of the metaverse itself.

Privacy
=======

Section 8.2 of the Second Life Terms of Service:

"You acknowledge and agree that Linden , in its sole discretion, may track, record, observe or follow any and all of your interactions within the Service."

Whether we're pottering along at Tringo, slinging arguments at a Thinker's discussion or trying to find a pair of sunglasses that will go well with our dick, we're always vaguely aware of that privacy clause. We know that if we were somehow to stray into CS/TOS-violation territory, that a Linden might materialize behind us with their x-ray vision or that an employee at their desk in San Francisco might receive an IM and invisibly bring up our account details.

In the privacy debate, the naysayers argue, "If you're not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about". But I wonder if other residents would be at least vaguely disconcerted at the thought that every single utterance they have made in the past 8 months for example, is nestled away on a storage medium somewhere, in an office, like a fly frozen in amber? All trivial fond records, an indelicate joke about nuns, a whispered aside about how god-awful your best friend's new dress is. But the serious stuff too: Personal confessions, double-lives, revelations at an in-world alcoholics anonymous meeting, a RL affair, a tearful dislosure of childhood sexual abuse, embarassing medical problems, intimate exchanges, shared Real Life phone numbers, work and financial details. All frozen in time.

Is SL any different than the rest of cyberspace in this regard? How so?

Whatever the answer, as a hypothetical it's interesting to ask yourself if you would be willing to sacrifice your privacy if it meant that every act of harassment, every Terms of Service violation, every act of fraud and real-world crime could be traced and examined with almost God-like precision. Griefers, copyright-thiefs, con-artists, paedophiles - the whole spectrum under complete scrutiny. Would you make this sacrifice in Second Life? Are you already making it?

Crimes and Evidence-Gathering
=============================

Suppose that my friend's second claim is true - that everything from object rezzes to gesture triggers are logged. Imagine that Linden Lab were to investigate the virtual-world equivalent of the Kennedy Assassination. In their God-mode recreation of the event, they can determine the timings, they can tell you what the cloud coverage was like on that day, they can tell you where the sun was, the wind velocity and direction, the ground height and slope. They can tell you the exact color of the bullet, and can give you a complete account of the physics that took place - velocity, mass, gravity, energy, the list goes on. And that's just a tiny sample of all the relevant information. They could close the case on the chat-logs alone.

That's just a hypothetical example. There's a slew of real ones available. The really virtual and the really real. Everything from allegations of in-world Nazi death-camp re-creations, to TSO's virtual child prostitutes and RL physical abuse, virtual child porn in SL, the recent client-side hack and 2 alleged land-ownership group-dispute/scams (1 and 2).

With its limited knowledge, the public (myself included) has never shied away from making its own rulings on these controversies. But would it change things if we were to learn that Linden Lab was infinitely better-informed about abuse and TOS violations than we had previously thought? That perhaps they have ruled on a hundred decisions already, the ones above for example, with 20/20 hindsight, never once revealing the extent of their evidence? Would residents actually welcome our new elephant-memory overlords?

But what about the blindspots? Private emails and forums, IRC and instant messenger sessions. Are these significant enough to be worried about? To what extent is griefing possible outside of the Second Life client itself? And if so, is it even a legitimate area for LL concern? It seems apparent that if extensive in-world logs do exist, the Lindens would not trawl through them to investigate every single abuse-report. The limited time available, and the sheer volume of information, would make this prohibitive. But will the knowledge that it is technically possible, strike fear into the hearts of griefers and criminals in Second Life? If so, will they shift their tongue-forkery off the grid and into the spaces where LL has no jurisdiction - instant-messenger programs and IRC? And will they meet there the paranoid, refugee champions of privacy and free speech? Or just all the residents taking advantage of SL-denied communication features like temporary-group chats and stealth settings (offline status)?

Government Law and Order
========================

One of the most hotly-debated topics among Second Life residents has been in-world government. Residents ask whether Linden Lab can accurately be described as 'the government' within Second Life. They discuss whether residents might play a role in a global, in-world government or whether they should they look to ways of forming their own. And they wonder whether these resident-based governments could actually have any clout.

A few of them also wonder about 'resident review panels'.

'Resident review panels' are an aspect of the Second Life legal system that have been announced publicly but are shrouded in secrecy. You can read a bit about them here. In brief, LL chooses 25 active residents at random and sends them the anonymous case-history of an alleged serial offender. The review panel lets each resident vote yes or no on whether the offender should be banned, and provides them with a blank line in which to write a comment. LL reserves the right to overrule the majority decision and panel participants are asked not to share the details of the case with others.

One of the concerns I have often heard from the few people who actually know about these resident review panels, is that the alleged offender has no chance to present a defense. LL's response seems to be that the facts of the violations themselves are not open to question. All they're interested in finding out is whether the residents think that the violations warrant a permanent ban. But some residents clearly see in these review panels the seed of a complete Second Life in-world legal framework - one that involves greater resident participation.

But this new claim regarding Linden Labs' evidence-gathering powers, casts all these law and order questions in a new light. Is a complete legal framework with judges and juries, prosecutors and defense attorneys, any longer necessary (if it was before)? On the other hand, isn't it true that court trials are not always about disputing the facts but disputing the interpretations of those facts, and the relevant laws? If so, how often might these trickier ones actually occur in Second Life?

And in any case, is a global, resident-involved legal-system an example of 'taking the whole metaverse thing too far' or will they be a commonplace feature of the virtual-worlds of 2015?

Robin Linden recently posted:

We believe that police are not the preferred solution to the elimination of bad behavior and intolerance in Second Life. The mechanisms are in place for dealing with people who are infringing on others' rights. Be sure that we are continually refining them and looking to find ways to make them even better, but adding police isn't the means we are considering. First, it isn't scalable, and second, we think that top-down solutions from Linden Lab are not in the best interest of Second Life.

Give us suggestions for ways to improve the abuse management system, or to improve land control tools which will ensure griefing is either unprofitable or no fun.

OK, you have my vote but...

/me edges towards Yahoo Messenger.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Should Second Life be banned Down Under?



"New York, NY – July 29, 2005 – Take-Two Interactive Software, Inc. (NASDAQ: TTWO) said today that Australia's Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC), the Australian entity responsible for rating films and video games, has revoked the classification of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. As a result of this decision, the game is now unclassified in Australia, and cannot be sold, advertised or distributed in that country." -- Take Two Interactive Press Release

I've always been fond of the last words spoken by Brian Piccolo, an American football player. When I die, I hope someone will llSetTexture these words onto my Second Life tombstone. They resonate with me as some sort of profound Philip Dickian ontology enquiry.

On June 16 1970 Brian Piccolo died of cancer. Apparently his last words, the last thing he said to his girlfriend was...

"Can you believe this shit?"

When Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was released in Australia, shelves were only stocked with a special crippled version of the game where, among other restrictions, you could no longer pick up prostitutes. I understand that this is because it was seen as some sort of endorsement of real life sexual violence, ie. in the uncensored game it was possible to pay a hooker your $50, bump uglies (for the health boost), and then kill her to get your $50 back. In the version we ended up with, hookers would under no circumstances get into your car. This meant you could still murder them for cash but you just weren't allowed to avail them of their services beforehand. Nonetheless a good number of hardcore fans ordered uncensored copies of the game online from our New Zealand brethren over the water. And even though it was apparently illegal, Australian sellers could make a good $20 or $30 profit on Ebay.com.au.

The sequel Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas however - until now - seemed to have slipped under the radar. Censors apparently left it untouched and the Australian version of the game saw humpable-hookers back in force. I have no idea why. And yet you're still only allowed to buy the moderated version of Vice City. With San Andreas now banned entirely, New Zealand games websites are reporting that their own classification office may also follow suit. So Australian gamers will have to click further than ever before to get their illegal copies. For some gamers with only small mouse-pads, it may be a bridge too far.

It seems well-established that Australia's conservative censorship laws err on the side of Draconian. Nonetheless, a few corkers still get approved. Last weekend I rented a terrible sub-titled R-rated French movie that, to my suprise, featured a scene where a gay man, with prior consent, sodomized a sleeping woman with the handle of a wooden pitch-fork.

Afterwards he returned the pitch-fork to its' previous place in the garden outside her house.

Um... fair enough.

And yet San Andreas' hilarious, cheeky, chunky-pixellated, cartoon sex-scene - featuring an 'excitement meter' - bangs its' head against the rating ceiling for computer games and is banned clean off the Australian map. When you play San Andreas you can routinely decapitate innocent bystanders with a samurai sword. With a sniper rifle it's like the Mark Wahlberg scene in Three Kings, their head pops off 'like a champagne cork atop a gusher of blood'. The Office of Film and Literature Classification signed off on these violent aspects of the game. But comical, consensual sex-scenes involving a girlfriend that you have to ply for hours beforehand with dating and dancing, is apparently a no-no.

Can you believe this shit?

As 'Maddox' writes: "I'll be the first person to download and patch my PC version of Grand Theft Auto. I want to shoot people in the face, bang prostitutes, traffic drugs, steal cars, and terrorize police officers without this filthy smut in my game..."

The highest rating a computer game can physically get in Australia is MA15+. Films can get R18+. There is no Adult rating for games in Australia. 'Adult' games are illegal. Apparently there are no adult gamers.

Suppose I take Oliver Stone's R18+ Scarface and import it into a Macromedia Flash project. Suppose I edit it so you can unlock a Tony Montana shotgun-scene only if you double-click fast enough at the right moment. Does this film get banned now because it's a 'game'? If not, at what point does it become too interactive?

It's funny. The implications for Second Life have only just dawned on me. Under current internet censorship legislation in Australia, if Second Life were to be classified R - which I imagine it would - it would not be banned. However, should the Australian government ever consider Second Life to be a 'computer game' - even an adult one - it would get the chop. Banned. In-world there are genitals, bodily secretions (“She makes my penis sneeze") and animations far more mature than those unlocked by the Hot Coffee mod for San Andreas.

I mean...

Can you believe this shit! :)

See also:

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Censorship in Second Life


Image Source: Elvert Xavier Barnes

Richard Bartle at Terra Nova asks "Is there any subject matter that can appear in a virtual world which should always be banned by real-world authorities?" [LINK]

I'm primarily interested in the question in terms of how it relates to Linden Lab and Second Life today.

My position is unpopular. I would like Linden Lab to enforce a set of community standards that is as liberal as possible. A 'hands off' approach. I would like them to censor only the bare minimum that would be required to avoid breaking the law or being exposed to serious legal challenges.

That is not their current position. I have no legal background but to my mind Linden Lab's current community standards and recent policing decisions are legally conservative. Images of swastikas are banned in-world. You can be permanently banned from the game for harassing residents or for being a serious asshat. Certain topics of conversation are off-limits - for example, speculation about a resident's real life identity and details.

The other half of my vision for SL, is for Linden Labs to reduce their police presence in SL and give you, the resident, more fine-grained options and controls about things like group-organization, what other residents can do to you, and what other residents can do on your land.

This will effectively make residents the police of their own spaces and experiences in Second Life.


Sunday, June 19, 2005

Childrens' Philosophy


Image Source (CC 2.0): Daveybot / Dave Morris.

Excerpt from 'Nausea' by Jean-Paul Sartre:

I can't say that I feel relieved or happy: on the contrary, I feel crushed. Only I have achieved my aim: I know what I wanted to know; I have understood everything that has happened to me since January. The Nausea hasn't left me and I don't believe it will leave me for quite a while; but I am no longer putting up with it, it is no longer an illness or a passing fit: it is me.

I was in the municipal park just now. The root of the chestnut tree plunged into the ground just underneath my bench, I no longer remembered that it was a root. Words had disappeared, and with them the meaning of things, the methods of using them, the feeble landmarks which men have traced on their surface. I was sitting, slightly bent, my head bowed, alone in front of that black, knotty mass, which was utterly crude and frightened me. And then I had this revelation.

It took my breath away. Never until these last few days, had I suspected what it meant to 'exist'. I was like the others, like those who walk along the sea-shore in their spring clothes. I used to say like them: 'The sea is green; that white speck up there is a seagull', but I didn't feel that it existed, that the seagull was an 'existing seagull'; usually existence hides itself. It is there, around us, in us, it is us, you can't say a couple of words without speaking of it, but finally you can't touch it. When I believed I was thinking about it, I suppose that I was thinking nothing, my head was empty, or there was just one word in my head, the word 'to be'. Or else I was thinking ... how can I put it? I was thinking appurtenances, I was saying to myself that the sea belonged to the class of green objects, or that green formed part of the sea's qualities. Even when I looked at things, I was miles from thinking that they existed: they looked like stage scenery to me. I picked them up in my hands, they served me as tools, I foresaw their resistance. But all that happened on the surface. If anybody had asked me what existence was, I should have replied in good faith that it was nothing, just an empty form which added itself to external things, without changing anything in their nature. And then, all of a sudden, there it was, as clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost its harmless appearance as an abstract category: it was the very stuff of things, that root was steeped in existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass on the lawn, all that had vanished; the diversity of things, their individuality, was only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft monstrous masses, in disorder naked with a frightening, obscene nakedness.

I took care not to make the slightest movement, but I didn't need to move in order to see, behind the trees, the blue columns and the lamp-post of the bandstand, and the Velleda in the middle of a clump of laurel bushes. All those objects ... how can I explain? They embarrassed me; I would have liked them to exist less strongly, in a drier way, more abstract way, with more reserve. The chestnut tree pressed itself against my eyes. Green rust covered it half way up; the bark, black and blistered, looked like boiled leather. The soft sound of the water in the Masqueret Fountain flowed into my ears and made a nest there, filling them with sighs; my nostrils overflowed with a green, putrid smell. All things, gently, tenderly were letting themselves drift into existence like those weary women who abandon themselves to laughter and say: 'It does you good to laugh', in tearful voices; they were parading themselves in front of one another, they were abjectly admitting to one another the fact of their existence. I realised that there was no half-way house between non-existence and this rapturous abundance. If you existed, you had to exist to that extent, to the point of mildew, blisters, obscenity. In another world, circles and melodies kept their pure and rigid lines.

But existence is a curve. Trees, midnight-blue pillars, the happy bubbling of a fountain, living smells, wisps of heat haze floating in the cold air, a red-haired main digesting on a bench: all these somnolences, all these digestions taken together had a vaguely comic side. No: it didn't go as far as that, nothing that exists can be comic; it was like a vague, almost imperceptible analogy with certain vaudeville situations. We were a heap of existents inconvenienced, embarrassed by ourselves, we hadn't the slightest reason for being there, any of us, each existent, embarrassed, vaguely ill at ease, felt superfluous in relation to the others. Superfluous: that was the only connection I could establish between those trees, those gates, those pebbles. It was in vain that I tried to count the chestnut trees, to situate them in relation to the Velleda, to compare their height with the height of the plane trees: each of them escaped from the relationship in which I tried to enclose it, isolated itself, overflowed. I was aware of the arbitrary nature of these relationships, which I insisted on maintaining in order to delay the collapse of the human world of measures, of quantities, of bearings; they no longer had any grip on things.


What I yesterday overheard a child say:

"Hello chair."


Monday, June 13, 2005

The Horror


Source: New Criminologist

18 March 2005:

"Amidst cries from tearful parents of "Shame on you, Bijeh," rocks and stones were tossed at the convicted murderer as he was flogged, shirtless and bound by his wrists to an iron pole. The man collapsed to his knees several times under the onslaught of the whip.

The 17-year-old brother of victim Rahim Younessi, managed to break through police security and charged at Bijeh with a knife, stabbing at him and wounding his back before police could restrain him.

When the lashing was concluded, Bijeh was unshackled from the pole and escorted to his death. A blue nylon rope-noose was placed around Bijeh's neck, reportedly by the mother of one of his victims, then attached to the hook of a crane." -- New Criminologist

See:

Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Church of Stories



Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, recently penned an essay entitled 'A Church of Stories'. This is the same Chuck Palahniuk whose own recent short story, 'Guts', has allegedly caused about 40 people to faint during public readings.

'A Church of Stories' excerpt:

Instead, now people go to therapy groups, twelve-step recovery groups, chat rooms, phone-sex hotlines, even writers workshops, to turn their lives and crimes into stories, express them, craft them, and in doing so be recognized by their peers. Brought back into the flock for another week. Accepted.

With this in mind: Our need to turn even the darkest parts of life — especially the darkest parts — into stories… our need to tell those stories to our peers… and our need to be heard, forgiven and accepted by our community . . . how about we start a new religion?

We could call this the "Church of Story." It would be a performance place where people could exhaust their stories, in words or music or sculpture. A school where people could learn craft skills that would give them more control over their story, and thus their life. This would be a place where people could step out of their lives and reflect, be detached enough to recognize a boring pattern or irrational fears or a weak character and begin to change that. To edit and rewrite their future. If nothing else, this could be a place where people would vent and be heard, and at that point maybe move forward.

It would be a forum safe enough for you to look terrible. Express terrible ideas.

Ironically, Chuck's call for free, communal, story spaces was published exclusively at Nerve.com as a 'Premium Offering', ie you have to pay $7 U.S. per month.

'Offering?' Like they're burning a pigeon for you.

The essay itself is being discussed in the forums at Chuckpalahniuk.net. 3 days ago someone had posted a full copy in an Ezboard post but it has since been deleted.

So for now I guess it's another religion with an EFTPOS machine at the entrance. Unlike Fight Club. You may recall Tyler Durden explaining to Lou of Lou's tavern that there is no money - the club is free to all.

LOU: Ain't that something?
TYLER: Yes, it is.

That aside, Second Life is a great place to build the first Church of Stories. As a virtual world, it is itself a story. So, who's game?

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

"Victim's E-journal led to slay suspect"


Source: http://qcpages.qc.cuny.edu/~sng5/

"A doomed Queens man's chilling computer entry led cops to a suspect who allegedly robbed and killed the victim and his sister to finance a return to China, police said yesterday." -- "Victim's E-journal led to slay suspect", New York Daily News May 17 2005

"Today I missed my Japanese class again, since I have gotten a bad throat. I only went to the class once this week, so I am probably so far behind now. I will catch up in the summer tho so no worries hehe. Anyway today has been weird, at 3 some guy ringed the bell. I went down and recognized it was my sister's former boyfriend. He told me he wants to get his fishing poles back. I told him to wait downstair while I get them for him. While I was searching them, he is already in the house. He is still here right now, smoking, walking all around the house with his shoes on which btw I just washed the floor 2 days ago! Hopefully he will leave soon, oh yeah working on the jap report as we speak!" -- Excerpt from his final e-journal entry

The 18 year-old's blog and personal homepage are still online. His personal homepage has photos of himself and his family. His face reminds me of so many old highschool friends. His final journal entry now has 4447 eprops and 255 comments.

This is the world we live in today. We will post a casual journal entry at 5pm and 24 hours later strangers from across the globe will post one-line "R.I.P" comments to it.

Props for this link to rinaz bijoux in the Off-Topic forum at the Second Life forums.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

A Gamer's Manifesto


A Gamer's Manifesto

Pointless Waste of Time.com has published 'A Gamer's Manifesto' - '20 things gamers want from the seventh generation of game consoles'. Excerpts:

  • "Wal-Mart. The largest game seller in the world simply won't stock games with the "AO" rating. Period. So those games won't sell and developers won't make them. So until they invent new and varied and Wal-Martless ways to sell the games, we're stuck with the AO games found only in our fantasies."
  • "Developers will be shocked one day when they notice that the world is full of women. It's true! More than half of your potential customer base are penisless. They have money. They like doing fun things. And yet, how do you think they feel when they play a game where the heroine looks like this [image]. Yeah, that's what she wears into battle. Thong-length kimono, no bra for those flopping DDD breasts."

Coincidentally, one of the points was raised recently in a comment at Walker Spaight's new 'Walkerings' blog. Excerpt from point 9 of 'A Gamer's Manifesto':

  • "Immersion means soothing to sleep the part of our brain that remembers we're not intergalactic bounty hunters or world-class athletes. And that part of us is rudely jostled awake when our snowboarder bounces off an invisible wall in midair because he strayed from the race area."

Welcome to my blog.


Source: Perry Bible Fellowship

Welcome to my blog.