Keeping SL Safe…Or CYA?

The latest bombshell dropped on the Grand Unified Linden Blog by Daniel Linden seems to indicate a crackdown in the making:

The diversity of things to see and do within Second Life is almost unimaginable, but our community has made it clear to us that certain types of content and activity are simply not acceptable in any form. Real-life images, avatar portrayals, and other depiction of sexual or lewd acts involving or appearing to involve children or minors; real-life images, avatar portrayals, and other depictions of sexual violence including rape, real-life images, avatar portrayals, and other depictions of extreme or graphic violence, and other broadly offensive content are never allowed or tolerated within Second Life.

The post goes on to encourage Residents who see such examples of “broadly offensive” content to report it.

And the hue and cry has started from multiple quarters. Jacek, for instance, opines:

This confirms previous suspicions that Linden Lab is ramping up as a new Censor: the keeper of the public morality for this grand virtual empire of theirs.

[…]

Gone are the days of “combating intolerance”. The new fashion is to embrace and revel in it.

[…]

It seems that it is no longer a violation of privacy to spy on your neighbors and report them if they are having kinky sex in their own skybox 700m above the ground. Far from it, such snooping is now a civic duty, as Daniel Linden indicates in his twisted call for Residents to make Second Life a “welcoming space” by shunning anyone they disagree with […]

We can come only to the somber conclusion that Second Life is no longer the bastion of liberty and free expression that it once was.

Tateru, reporting at Second Life Insider, isn’t quite as apocalyptic in her tone, but emphasizes the ambiguity of the situation:

You might wonder what Broadly Offensive actually means. Lord knows, everyone else does.

Linden Lab has previously clarified that broadly offensive largely consists of what a lot of people complain about being offended by. I’m moved to wonder if that includes Goreans, Furries, BDSMers and Gays – all groups that we are inclusive of as an overall culture in Second Life, but which many dozens, hundreds or thousands of individual people can and do find offensive (more’s the pity).

How broad is broadly? A hundred complaints? Two hundred? A thousand? Ten thousand? A television documentary? Front page of the New York Times?

There’s also a note about potentially illegal behaviour. What sort of illegality? Illegal where? Do I need to go shop for a Burqa, avoid saying anything that might be interpreted as critical of certain governments, and report any of my married, homosexual Second Life friends?

I am afraid that this statement from Linden Lab overall is at best unhelpful, and for the most part fails to answer any questions, and raises many more.

This is a crucial point. “Broadly offensive” by whose standards? I would assume the standards of San Francisco, being the home base of LL, but someone in Saudi Arabia or Singapore might not agree with me.

But this is sort of beside the point; I’m more interested in knowing one thing: What is motivating LL to crack down like this at this point?

As the title of this piece indicates, I think it’s a reflection of the only universal corporate policy in the world: “In case of trouble, cover your ass.”

You may recall that LL has had to deal with German authorities in the recent past regarding allegations of child pornography in SL. They’ve also, no doubt, seen what’s been going on over at MySpace, and the backlash they faced as a result. This announcement feels like a “preemptive strike” by LL to try and demonstrate that they’re keeping a firm grip on things that might pose legal problems–and perhaps keep the RL politicians, law enforcement agencies, and bluenoses from imposing their standards on SL.

If that happens, I guarantee you, as little as the libertines of SL culture like LL’s new restrictive tone, they’d like the resulting situation even less. There’s no way to predict how far politicians would go in regulation of SL and other similar virtual environments…particularly if they felt they could win votes by doing so. (Remember: All politicians really care about, no matter what they say, is getting elected, then getting re-elected.) If one considers that some sharp lawyer might see a way to blame LL for the conduct of Residents, the situation becomes even more dire, and LL badly needs an “affirmative defense” to those allegations. Will this act as one? I don’t kn0w, but it certainly looks better than if LL sat by and did nothing.

Of course, the Law of Unintended Consequences is at work here too, and Sarah Nerd explains how LL’s good intentions could play right into the hands of griefers:

For instance, I have had issues latley with a wanna-be journalist setting up acts on my land, and suspected of paying people to say what was needed to support his article. I’ve also heard of people setting up acts in other peoples venues and contacting Lindens in an effort to close establishments. I’d be interested in knowing if we will be responsible for the acts of others on our property’s, and a more defined definition of what they consider offensive. I guess time will tell.

It’s not difficult to imagine tactics like this being employed against certain people who have become “unpopular” in SL for whatever reason…but, if such tactics can be employed against them, they can be employed against anyone. It would be a dirty, underhanded thing to do, of course, but that would be no deterrent to some.

I find I agree with Tateru; LL desperately needs to clarify the exact meaning of this policy statement, ASAP. If free expression must be curtailed, let’s curtail it only as much as necessary, and no more. We as Residents must say, as Picard did in Star Trek: First Contact, “The line must be drawn here! This far, no farther!” Yet, at the same time, we as Residents must also accept this restriction as a necessary evil, lest RL political forces curtail our freedom of expression beyond even LL’s desires. We may not be able to stave them off indefinitely. But I would rather say that I made the attempt and failed than say that I waited passively while our world surrendered to the Puritans of RL.

Remain vigilant.

UPDATE: The esteemed Ms. Malaprop offers a programmatic solution to this thorny issue.

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9 Comments

Filed under Current Events, Philosophy

9 responses to “Keeping SL Safe…Or CYA?

  1. I definitely believe this is a severe case of CYA. LL does not want any bad publicity marring their perfect little world so they have to stunt the creativity of others in order to protect their image. Our world, NO imagination.

  2. That’s why I encourage Residents to remain vigilant. Left to their own devices, who knows how far LL will think they can go, or that they need to go?

    While restriction of free expression is not my favorite thing in the world, I’d rather have it imposed by LL policies, which have a certain degree of flexibility, than by real-world laws, which carry very little flexibility. Hobson’s Choice, perhaps, but there may be no third option. I’d like to see, though, a policy that recognized the value of common sense and fairness in all situations.

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  4. Well, here’s the thing: There are no established precedents through the AR system which would define the boundaries.

    They lack clear definitions of what is right or wrong, and the lack of transparency into the abuse report system implies what may be inconsistency. This may not be true, but why else is it that we don’t know what causes the bans other than arcane phrases.

    ‘Disturbing the Peace’? What does that *mean*? 🙂

  5. Nobody, the whole issue of the AR system is worth a whole blog post in and of itself; it’s pretty obviously suboptimal in its present form. In designing a replacement for the existing system, I would want to see clear rules (it should always be possible to tell if your actions are or not in violation thereof), transparency (justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done), and an overarching dictum that common sense and fairness must guide any and all interpretations of the rules.

    We don’t have established precedents through the present AR system because we can’t see any details of the resolution of the ARs to establish precedents from. Without that, there’s no clear way to tell if you’re in violation of the rules at any given time. Or, to put it another way, we have the “statutes” (the TOS and CS as given by LL, plus any announcements of the nature that Daniel Linden made), but we have no “case law” to see exactly how those statutes are interpreted in practice.

  6. piook

    Okay, no normal or sane individual condones rape or child porn. But if it is virtual and no child is actually being harmed then where is the crime? Is it simply a matter of the virtual world being considered a “breeding ground” for behavior that COULD translate to the real world? I would venture to say no on this as if this was the fear of LL that they would be much more strict in their allowance of anything that is illegal, taboo, or otherwise immoral.
    I think that the whole thing is driven by money. Now that LL is no longer a start up small company, the bean counters are trying to cover the companies ass. And that is why the definition of what is offensive will ever be clearly defined.

  7. The issue of money is an important one here, certainly, Piook. LL’s investors likely don’t want the value of their investment diminished by actions taken against LL due to “questionable content” in SL. In addition, two of the possible “better” corporate outcomes for LL are that it IPOs or gets acquired by another company, and legal issues over content help neither of those scenarios. I think that’s at least one motive for the sudden CYA on behalf of LL here.

    In terms of “virtual child porn,” I posted some commentary on that issue in March. The discussion there is decidedly relevant to the Daniel Linden announcement…and I wonder if my post was one of the sources Daniel was thinking of when he said “…our community has made it clear to us that certain types of content and activity are simply not acceptable in any form.”

  8. Well – LL also has to consider the people who are invested in the SL economy itself. If enough people lose enough money, they’ll be in a sinkhole of their own making.

    Some say that this is already happening.

  9. AllieKat Stovall

    to be honest. im not sure what LL is thinking. yes child porn, virtual or not, is sick and wrong. real or not… the thought of it is disturbing at the least in my book. yes there should be some form of “censorship” however, to comply with every law in every country on every subject is assinine at best. an online community based with its world headquarters in the USA should, operate under the jurisdiction of applicable laws to its home state or country. playing please everyone will only make LL draw the short end of the stick… when people get sick of it, they will leave. and i predict that when it happens… it will be an enormous exodus. as a designer and builder in the glorious world of SL i have invested more time and effort than i care to say here, into the economy of this grand scheme of rosedale’s… to have it collapse around me may not be as harmful as say an anshe chung, but it would be a serious dent in my personal economy.the one thing i would have to say to the lindens is exactly as you put it erbo. this goes no farther!… or as i have put it… how many people do i have to shoot to get my way around here! when i came in to SL there was no restrictions except the imagination… and just because someone is offended… the knee jerk reactions are to lock everything down… LL is beginning to kill itself, so… its a long way down from the top… grab on and enjoy the ride..

    *steps off her soapbox*

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