An open letter on virtual worlds for Senator Conroy

Today’s coverage by Asher Moses in Fairfax newspapers on the latest saga with content filtering in Australia, alludes to virtual environments such as Second Life being added to the list of content not suitable for viewing in Australia. Essentially, the issue is that online ‘games’ like World of Warcraft and Second Life have not received an Classification rating and therefore under the proposed content filtering would be blocked.

abcisland-june2009

The government funded ABC island: collateral damage through bad policy?


It’s difficult to know where to begin to pick the flaws in the logic of the approach, but I thought it may be worth writing an open letter / tutorial to the obviously misinformed Minister in question, Senator Conroy:

1. Virtual worlds do indeed contain adult content such as sex of pretty much any type, simulated drug use and plenty of violence. That said, just like going to the R-rated shop located in most suburbs, in environments like Second Life you can’t partake of the goods unless you’ve provided proof of age. So Senator, are you going to mandate the Australian Federal Police to ensure every ‘bricks and mortar’ adult store customer has to go through a government check before entering? Will you also be closing down other social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as they too are not rated and also contain graphic content?

2. Second Life, OpenSim grids and gaming worlds like World of Warcraft are three examples of environments that have highly valuable and empirically demonstrable educational benefits. Just talk to the dozens of Australian educators who have undertaken postgraduate research in the area. Can you explain what alternative means of immediate support the Rudd government will be providing to those people who utilise such environments for immediate health support around issues as diverse as mental health, physical disabilities and chronic disease support?

3. Given a range of virtual environments are used for the purposes of expressing free speech or engaging in activism in a much more visual way, does the Australian Labor party commit to not using emergent technologies for political purposes? Why should Gaza protesters not be able to get their message out via Second Life to Australians whilst the ALP spams YouTube with Kevin Rudd informercials?

4.On the child protection thing. Any normal person doesn’t want their kids exposed to undesirable influences – it’s called parenting. If parents cannot be trusted to screen virtual world content, then is the government also committing to a full ban on R-rated magazines in newsagents, a blanket ban on all legal drug consumption in public and zero tolerance on swearing or violence. And if so, how will this be funded and implemented?

5. Can the Rudd government outline how Australians will maintain their competitive advantage in a global economy where virtual worlds are increasingly adopted as a means of communication? Will books be distributed with vetted pictures of said technologies and will this be enough to make our children competitive?

6. This to me is the most important question of all: have you, Senator Conroy, received any substantive briefing on the opportunities virtual worlds provide for educators, health professionals and businesses? I don’t mean Steve Fielding showing you a picture of two avatars going at it in Second Life. I mean a real briefing covering demographics, trends, research and evidence-based success stories. I can point you in the direction of half a dozen great people locally off the top of my head. Hell, I’ll come too to report on your newfound open-mindedness. I promise I’ll behave.

Of course, Senator Conroy is no more likely to read the above open letter than he is to request the substantive briefing mentioned. To be fair, no definitive statement has been made by the government on virtual worlds but the signs certainly aren’t encouraging. Like the wider issues with content filtering, the baby looks like being thrown out with the bathwater, and we won’t know it until it’s too late. If this does come to pass, Australia will be up there with North Korea in developing its population to be tech-savvy competitors in a global economy. Now THAT’s an education revolution.

Postscript: this afternoon I spent some time discussing the issue with Tateru Nino (who’s written on the issue here and here) and she made a really good point: by creating its adult-only continent in Second life, has Linden Lab forced the hand of ACMA to provide a rating on Second Life’s content. Having everything conglomerated in one place makes a rating easier. The trouble is, under the proposed regime it could also spell the end of Second Life access for Australians, or at least some significantly pared down access to PG-areas only.

Comments

  1. At least with regards to SecondLife, it's worth emphasising Section 2.2 of the Terms of Service, which indicate:

    “You must be 13 years of age or older to access Second Life; minors over the age of 13 are only permitted in a separate area, which adults are generally prohibited from using.”

    Further:

    “You must be at least 13 years of age to participate in the Service. Users under the age of 18 are prohibited from accessing the Service other than in the area designated by Linden Lab for use by users from 13 through 17 years of age (the “Teen Area”). Users age 18 and older are prohibited from accessing the Teen Area. Any user age 18 and older who gains unauthorized access to the Teen Area is in breach of this Agreement and may face immediate termination of any or all Accounts held by such user for any area of the Service.”

    Effectively, whereas Australia does not have an R18+ Classification, the Terms of Use for SecondLife clearly articulates that you must be 18 years old or older to use the bulk of the service, and has mechanisms (the “Teen Area”) in place through with 13 – 18 may engage under tighter controls and restrictions.

    Additionally, according to the SecondLife Wiki article on Teen SecondLife:

    “Linden Lab only allows adults (anyone 18 and older) in the Teen Second Life who have had a background check completed, and who are either educators responsible for an education project in the Teen Second Life, developers assisting in the development of projects in the Teen Second Life, or the person responsible for managing activities on business islands in the Teen Second Life.”

  2. I, as an adult wander various corners of second life – I'm not in it for the sex stuff, when I stuble accross the sex stuff I often point and laugh. I often visit area in second life that may get a mature rating – but the reasons for that is the freedom – the freedom of not having to look over ones virtual shoulder with the fear of some admin coning over saying ” that stuff is bad” and kicking you out – as I've seen some admins that operate in PG zones be a little sensitive at anyhting that would remotely look suggestive to adult content.

    This kind of censorship is overkill – and out of sheer experience – if the public is educated on what kids can and can't see as well as making parents AWARE that on entry to an online service that that they may be exposed to particular types of material.

    Now why can't a responsible govenrment choose the manage it by allowing the additional classifications like R and X ratings? Becasue outright blocking is just plain silly. There are people making a living out of these virtual world that aren't doing it on the sexual level of things.

    If things like WOW and Second life are cut off…….. how many bored humans will begin cruising the streets looking for trouble? How many people will be rapidly exposing themselves to things like swine flu and preading it around a lot quicker because they need to socialise physically rather than remotely? How many people are out there who may be house bound (by medical or physical issues) relying on online worlds as a tool to prevent depression and suicidal tendancies? How many students will struggle to collaborate together if they need to plan something out in a virtual world before trying real-world things? How much more pressure on fuel prices will there be because people need to travel more to do things? All because some government twit says that he doesn't like it due to the fact if contains questionable content!!! F** you MR Conroy!

  3. Artfox Daviau says:

    I am amazed that Australia would be so foolish to consider adding Second Life to its list of banned sites. I have created here a world that, while some mature activity goes on inside peoples homes, behind closed doors, is a wonderland of beauty and creativity outside these homes. Children cannot access it because of age verification and it is administered by responsible adults who evict or ban those who will not follow decency guidelines.

    My residents have fun, they are a community, respectful of each others privacy. Nothing rated Adult is permitted here and US guidelines are stricter than ours.

    The creativity and innovation of that community is astounding.

    Would you ban this Senator?

  4. Australia Estate has been inundated with requests for information about the planned internet filter and whether it will affect Second Life in Australia. We have been discussing this with other Australians in SL – and are tryig very hard to get some informed comment from the Linden Labs or the Australian Govenment on this issue.

    This is our community, our lives and our passion – bringing Australia to Second life.We are very concerned that the community, education and health support aspects of Second life are being completely overlooked in a misinformed attempt to curb R rated activity on the internet. We have asked people in our groups to folow Metaverse Journal for news, to become better informed about the issue of internet censorship, and to above all stay calm.

  5. You mean to tell me that with all the sex and violence we see on TV, the pornographic magazines that are in our face IN ORDINARY SHOPS AND NEWSAGENTS (a petition against which was denied on the basis of free speech by the Attorney General), and the smut we see every day … that SL and such is being targeted, despite the smut being in the definite minority?

    Why don't we censor books, while we're at it? For crying out loud, I see worse on late-night TV than I do on SL!

  6. What will become of the ABC presence in Second LIfe?

  7. TateruNino says:

    The actual proposed filtering system is intended to block things that contain portions that are not considered suitable for a 15 year old audience.

  8. TateruNino says:

    Both The Metaverse Journal and Massively.com are attempting to seek additional clarification and comment from the Minister's office. As yet, we've had no response.

  9. TateruNino says:

    The ABC presence was, alas, recently strongly criticized in Parliament. It seems like they already have a doubtful future there, but I very much hope that they can stick it out.

  10. Drake_Nightfire says:

    i cant see how they will implement this.. i dont know how aussies get their internet, but in the US we have many different was including sattelite. not sure how they will block a sattelite feed… anywho, just my 2 coppers.

  11. The effort involved in enforcing some kind of “ban” strikes me as being so huge that I strongly suspect that the suggested “law” will not come about. There is an awful lot of commerce and education going on in virtual worlds that would be affected by a blanket ban. Many universities have Second Life locations that are restricted access to the general SL public, as do some corporations/businesses. I don't know if Australia has a constitutional “free speech” clause, but any lawyer could see that banning access to a virtual world is a direct infringement of such freedom of speech. There is no way for a government to know if a citizen is in SL to meet a friend or to have simulated sex with simulated donkeys. And even if it is the latter, a gornment should have no right to decide what is or is not OK.

    Of course, we should expect the argument of “it's to protect the children” to be used as a brick-bat to support censorship, but folks need to remember that the brick-bat is really a red herring. And as a mature democracy, I expect the Aussies to be able to argue against any attempts at free speech censorship by their elected representatives. If there's anything we can have confidence in, it's that the Aussies know how to put up a fight and won't take bullying from politicians!

  12. TateruNino says:

    No, we've got no constitutionally guaranteed rights here. We have things like free-speech and so forth by consensus, not by constitutional guarantee.

    The 'ban' of which we speak is basically a proposed national block to websites and services that are found to contain (in whole or in part) content that is found objectionable according to some not terribly clear standard. The block is to be implemented by hardware installed at every Internet Service and Connectivity Provider in the country and administered by…. someone. Who would be administering the filtering hardware has not been make clear. That would allow the blocks to be updated, more or less at the touch of a button.

  13. couldbe yue says:

    If this is true then I strongly suggest that those living in Australia do two things:
    1. Join the friends of the ABC. The ABC always needs friends, it doesn't matter who is in power – both sides think the ABC is biased lol
    2. contact your MP and register your disapproval at them over their attitude. I know that Australia has been living in the Menzies era for a while now courtesy of your last PM but it is ok to join the 21st Century.

  14. Eggbert says:

    Watch! Start calling to put a end to all this. The gov has no buisness in our homes its time for Australia to pull there finger out. I cant do it alone and others cant do it for us
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EmQfm0TXAYg&feat

  15. Flibble says:

    ACMA doesnt rate the internet or the online games.. that's the classification's job. I'm not defending Conroy, he's an idiot, but there is so much disinformation about what is going on it's ridiculous

  16. Artfox Daviau says:

    totally agree the film classification board does rate imported games, but as far as i know does not have the power to rate downloaded ones. Secondly, a colleague from the ABC recently contacted Conroys office and they Categorically Denied that SL will be banned ! hehe

  17. Artfox Daviau says:

    The film classification board does rate imported games, but as far as i know does not have the power to rate downloaded ones.

    Secondly, a colleague from the ABC recently contacted Conroys office and they Categorically Denied that SL will be banned !

  18. Flibble says:

    ACMA doesnt rate the internet or the online games.. that's the classification's job. I'm not defending Conroy, he's an idiot, but there is so much disinformation about what is going on it's ridiculous

  19. Artfox Daviau says:

    totally agree the film classification board does rate imported games, but as far as i know does not have the power to rate downloaded ones. Secondly, a colleague from the ABC recently contacted Conroys office and they Categorically Denied that SL will be banned ! hehe

  20. Artfox Daviau says:

    The film classification board does rate imported games, but as far as i know does not have the power to rate downloaded ones.

    Secondly, a colleague from the ABC recently contacted Conroys office and they Categorically Denied that SL will be banned !

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Meanwhile, Lowell Cremorne of The Metaverse Journal has some tough questions in an open letter to Senator Conroy. [...]

  2. [...] last night’s story on the Australian Government’s internet content filtering legislation and its potential [...]

  3. [...] Government’s ban on using virtual currencies to purchase real world goods, as well as the recent flare-up in concerns around the impact of the Federal Government’s internet filtering legislation on [...]

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