Content ratings, age-verification and secret words

tan-linden-lab-secret-keywordsLinden Lab is now in the final legs of adding a new content category to its virtual environment, Second Life. Being added to the existing PG and Mature categories is the new category, Adult, which permits some content which has hitherto not been permitted in Second Life. The new content category is anticipated to go fully live in July.

Of particular interest, though, are the keyword lists and also age verification. Linden Lab is going to be maintaining a secret list of keywords, the presence of any of which in any descriptive text will prevent that item from appearing as a search result to those who have not (a) undergone age verification, and (b) do not have Adult search results enabled. Accounts which have not undergone verification will not be able to access Adult regions at all, or to enable Adult search results.

That list is being kept a closely guarded secret. What that essentially means is that it’s pretty trivial to determine which words are on it, and some users have already done so. The list may change, but it is a matter of only minutes (and a little database pummeling) to determine the exact contents of the keywords list.

Linden Lab┬áhave chosen to keep┬áthe list a secret, so that people will not be able to work around it. Unfortunately, by its very nature, it needs to be about the worst-kept secret around. It would be kinder to the database just to publish the list, so that people don’t have to brute-force a solution — because they will. I fully expect to see a public and frequently updated list online that publicizes the Adult keywords list before long.

But hey, you’ve got to age-verify for that, right?

That involves either going through the Identity-Verification system that Linden Lab has engaged Aristotle for (which has proven to be unworkable for many, or of otherwise dubious utility), or putting payment information on file on your Second Life account.

Yes, it’s really that simple. So simple, a child could do it. Literally.

What payment methods, exactly constitute verification of age, exactly? According to a spokesperson for Linden Lab, “Any payment method we currently take. PayPal accounts used on XStreet SL will need to be Verified PayPal accounts.

Last time we looked, credit card providers expressly prohibited the use of credit cards as an age verification mechanism in their merchant and payment-processor agreements. That makes this somewhat of a dubious stretch, contractually. However, Linden Lab outsources payment processing, so while their payment-processor might be at risk of reprisals from card-companies, there’s probably no real barrier to the Lab using credit cards as an age verification mechanism.

Aside from the fact that possession of a credit card nowadays is independent of age, prepaid credit cards are available to all ages (some major card companies are issuing prepaid cards to infants), and regular credit cards are available to anyone old enough to hold a job flipping burgers or sweeping floors. In fact, there may be more minors with cards that are indistinguishable from traditional credit cards now than there are adults with them. But there’s always your mum’s purse if you’re hell-bent on tradition.

Linden Lab, however, is out of the liability loop on all of this, so long as they do not make public statements warranting the effectiveness of their age-verification system, or statements that the users are in a legally safer position than they were before. Either could land the Lab with some expensive and embarrassing lawsuits the first time little Suzy gets caught out with Adult content.

Second Life age verification – beta is live

After many months of development, Linden Lab have announced the beta version of their age verification system. Tateru Nino has a great summary of what it does and doesn’t do. Suffice it to say, it’s not compulsory unless you want to be able to access restricted areas in Second Life.

ageverification.JPG

To test the system I contacted two SL residents I know who are casual users and asked them if they’d mind verifying their age for the system. One resident provided their actual name, address and NSW Driver’s Licence with a fake date of birth – they were verified successfully. The second person also provided actual name and address but used a fake Driver’s Licence and fake date of birth. They too were successfully verified.

You do check a box stating you’ve provided correct information so I imagine there’s some protection in the system for Linden Lab if false information has been provided. However, if Linden Lab started to claim that it was a fairly robust security measure, I’d be quite concerned. For the record, my age verification was flawless using a Driver’s Licence – so the company running the service obviously has some Australian information on its servers….

Update: A further missive from Linden Lab admitting to high rates of failures for international users.

Update 2: Another clarification on the process by which the verification occurs – I’m still fascinated how the third-party system has so much information about individuals in the first place.

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