Friday, May 11, 2007

Age Verification Makes Sense - A Lot of Sense

A few weeks ago I wrote a column for the english/german SL tabloid The AvaStar on the separation between the teen and the main grid. I concluded with the prediction that Linden Lab will add ways to identify certain characteristics of the people behind avatars, soon. This prediction does not require a sixth sense. Such tools are the only way to avoid some serious legal hassles coming towards us. It took Linden Lab just two weeks to announce the first such tools: in the near future, land owners will have the ability to ban avatars, which don't have their "adultness" verified. Actually, land owners will be obliged to use this banning ability, if they are displaying "mature" content on their land.

Robin Linden's posts about the introduction of this feature here and there were greeted with the angry outcry, which seems to be the usual reaction of some vocal parts of the Second Life community to nearly every change of policy in our society. But actually – not judging every little detail of the planned policy and processes – I think this is a step in the right direction. As Second Life grows, it becomes virtually (<- pun intended) impossible for Linden Lab, to control what is happening on the grid. Computer software just can't do this. And human intelligence is much too expensive for policing a platform, which is basically free for the majority of users. So – from a purely pragmatic point of view – it is necessary to shift this responsibility over to the residents. But I think it is not only pragmatic, but fair, too: it is the residents responsibility to make sure that what they do, complies with the relevant laws. But to do this, they need effective tools – like age verification.

This is only a first step. Expect to see more kinds of "verification" in the near future! Why? As Second Life grows and becomes more important for business and other aspects of society, legal problems stemming from absolute anonymity will grow.

This does not mean, that we will have to give up anonymity. Like in physical reality, we will be able to do most day-to-day activities without telling anybody, who we are. But for certain other activities we will have to prove that we are "qualified".

I am fairly certain that there will be a way to optionally "deposit" your complete RL identity info with Linden Lab in the not too distant future, for example. At least for those of us doing substantial business within Second Life the national tax authorities won't be satisfied with anything less. Until now the Lab still tries to formally upheld the illusion, that the L$ is of no value and is no real currency. But when you have assets worth a few 10,000 US$ in Second Life and you are able to convert them into US$ with a few mouseclicks - through an application which suspiciously looks like a currency exchange ...

Actually, your account in Second Life is not too different from one with PayPal. And PayPal is very insistent on verifying your identity as soon as the transaction volume reaches a certain level - because local authorities would shut them down, if they wouldn't.

We might not like this development but "the powers that be" will try to make sure, that a virtual world is no save haven from the laws that govern our lifes. And Linden Lab's reaction to the allegations of child pornography going on in Second Life shows, that our benevolent rulers are more than a little interested in placating First Life goverments.

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