China’s virtual currency regulation and Conroy’s filter

I had the pleasure of having a chat to Radio Australia’s Ryan Egan for the 20th episode of the Tech Stream podcast. We spoke in some detail about the Chinese 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 virtual worlds.

You can listen to the edited interview here (the full version is here), plus there’s some great previous features on augmented reality and more.

I also wrote a piece for Crikey on the net filtering issue, which you can read here.

Proposed ISP filtering allows surveillance of journalists, citizens, politicians

Should Senator Conroy’s proposed ISP filtering come to fruition, it concentrates extraordinary powers on whoever is to actually run it. It allows the surveillance of the Internet activities of Kevin Rudd’s children, the journalists at News Limited, or the government’s perceived political opponents (or its own members), or of anyone.

At will. Without cause. Without warrant. Without oversight.

Whether or not you agree with the filtering plan’s goals, this one thing should give you pause: your web-browsing history, and the web-browsing history of every Australian is available to some as-yet-unknown party, from the moment mandatory ISP filtering is switched on.

Sure, the contractor who provides the filtering service, and who maintains the systems will doubtless have all sorts of NDAs. But if someone in Rudd’s family browses porn from The Lodge, for example, then there’s considerable potential for leverage and extortion, because the contractor could obtain that data at will, even if government officials themselves could not, by law, obtain it.

Because filtering systems are logged. Filtering providers are, in fact, very keen on logging. Whether a request is blocked or allowed, the fact of it is recorded. Filtering providers use it to assess how well the system is performing. Individual user addresses are at times monitored from the logs, and some of that data is processed by humans to identify new things that should be blocked, or to see how people are attempting to defeat the filtering.

Whoever is providing and controlling the filtering gains unprecedented political power. Want to know what the journalists at a particular newspaper are up to? Scan the logs for their network addresses and check out what they’re reading on the Web. Ditto for other politicians. Or for anyone of interest, from parliamentarians to cleaners.

The potential for abuse here is absolutely appalling.

All you have is the word of people that these secrets won’t leak or be abused. Won’t they? The preliminary filter lists have already leaked, and contain quite a number of things that are far beyond what we’ve been told would be there. Our trust has already been violated even during the trial phase.

It’s only a matter of time before someone uses this data for their personal or political advantage.

And we, as a nation, are making it all too easy for that to happen.

Skoolaborate: a growing success, despite government ineptitude

I spent this morning at a session organised for a team of French innovators called ‘Lead Educators : Virtual Worlds and the Immersive Web’ . I’ll talk more about that in another post but I wanted to devote this one to a topic we’ve covered previously: Skoolaborate.

Since that time, there’s been some incredible progress, with more than forty schools now involved. I had the opportunity to see Skoolaborate up close at Sydney’s MLC School today. Director of Online Learning at MLC and Skoolaborate‘s founder, Westley Field, spent an hour or so presenting the outcomes to date from the project, which was established in 2007. Essentially, the outcomes demonstrate the power of a well designed 2D content delivery system combined with the use of Skoolaborate‘s islands in Second Life. Here’s a small example of such an outcome:

The main messages I took out of the session aren’t news to educators working regularly with virtual worlds, but they bear repeating for the rest of us:

1. Virtual worlds provide a powerful complementary role within the broader learning context

2. Some students immerse themselves in the virtual world aspects, others don’t like it, and most fall somewhere in the middle

3. Having an evangelist within a school for learning innovations like Skoolaborate is crucial, but having a supportive Principal is even more important

It’s not an entirely rosy picture for Skoolaborate though. Funding has improved although it remains an ongoing battle, and the time commitment from educators involved is significant. Most importantly, I detected a level of frustration around some inequalities existing in accessing Skoolaborate. One of the most stark illustrations of inequality with it is due purely to State Government ineptitude.

Let’s use the NSW Department of Education and Training (DET) as an example. Essentially, no NSW (or Australian) public schools are involved with Skoolaborate. The reason: schools falling under the control of the NSW DET cannot access Second Life. Why? The usual response on blocking content is around protecting children from unwanted information. The thing is, in the case of Skoolaborate, educators have already identified the issue and solved it. Participating schools are set up in Second Life so that only authenticated students and teachers can access in-world activities. In NSW, the private schools involved have mandatory ‘working with children’ checks and worldwide each participating school must complete their own relevant police checks for each adult participant. In fact, successful registration to access any content requires completion of the police check. This would have to make Skoolaborate one of the most child-secure online learning environments in existence.


Westley Field – MLC and Skoolaborate

What makes this issue particularly frustrating is that key bodies within the NSW DET actually understand that initiatives like Skoolaborate are delivering for students. The NSW DET’s own Centre for Learning Innovation (CLI) has staff well and truly across virtual worlds, and there’s recognition from its General Manager down that immersive worlds will be key to further online learning initiatives. 
Given that any school should be attempting to prepare its students for the realities of the outside world, and that units like the CLI already see the potential of virtual worlds for education, why would the DET have a policy of preventing access? It’s either a politically motivated call or a case of plain ignorance at the higher levels of the DET.

Either way, some serious questions need to be asked on how long the situation will occur. This may be a case of failing to protect children by not equipping them with appropriate knowledge. How will kids know how to navigate emerging technologies if they have no exposure in their schooling?

Update: Westley Field has contacted me to correct the assertion that no Australian public schools are involved with Skoolaborate – there are in fact public schools involved, just none from NSW. He also added: “The National Government , through its values in action program is leading the way by supporting us. This support partially based on the fact that we have all three sectors involved. We are very proud of that fact.”

Australian classification of MMOGs

Massively’s Tateru Nino has written a fascinating piece on the issue of games classification in Australia. Specifically, she’s confirmed with the Federal Attorney General’s Department that:

“Where a sale is within the jurisdiction of the relevant State or Territory legislation,” Heffernan informed us, “it is a criminal offence under those laws to sell unclassified computer games. Enforcement of those laws is a matter for the States and Territories.”

There may be no surprise in that to many people, but Tateru’s discovery is that most MMOs have no displayed evidence of having applied for Australian classification. After doing some digging for the story, she believes it’s a case of oversight combined with governmental miscommunication.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that the major MMO publishers wouldn’t understand that Australia had a classification regime. The claim is that such publishers were advised in the past that MMOs didn’t need to comply, which is plausible given their nature in comparison to a standard 1-person game at the beginning. Now, MMOs are so widely used it’s a problematic argument to uphold. Behemoths like Blizzard’s World of Warcraft and its expansion packs aren’t labeled with any Australian classification – an unusual thing unless historic advice has been provided to say local classification wasn’t required. WoW in particular has nothing to fear from classification given how innocuous its gameplay is and its well implemented moderation options.


It’s more an issue of principle: the government only assesses applications made to it, there’s no proactive work done on ensuring new releases are classified. There’s an obvious problem here – if a less responsible publisher arrives on the scene to release an MMO that would rate R18+ , it can still hit the shelves if that publisher doesn’t apply for classification rather than being refused classification if they did apply. As Tateru mentions in her piece, Australia has the farcical situation of having no R18+ or X18+ categories for games, so everything at that level is refused classification. Add to that the fact that State governments are responsible for enforcing the law and it’s not hard to see how this situation has arisen.

Essentially, the current voluntary application process combined with no ‘adult’ games ratings and the old Federal / State blameshifting actually fosters an environment where a non-ethical publisher would be mad not to release their MMO product unclassified. If they’re ever caught (which seems unlikely unless the MMO is beyond the pale), there’s a growing precedent of other MMOs selling tens or hundreds of thousands of locally unclassified copies. I’d have thought that would be one hell of a defense.

Hopefully the Australian Attorney General’s department has another look at the issue, particularly the lack of adult game classifications, because the status quo is becoming more untenable as MMOs continue their growth in popularity. The risk is that a crackdown will occur without an expansion of the classification options – that would be nearly as bad as the status quo.

Update: Tateru Nino has posted a follow-up story on the issue

A Federal Government approach to virtual worlds: what a contrast

fcvw The Federal Consortium for Virtual Worlds is an initiative designed to bring together US Federal Government employees. The April 2008 event held by the Consortium shows the depth of discussion at that level in regard to virtual worlds, and the 2009 version is likely to go a step further. This is a body that’s developed through the motivation of public servants from a wide range of fields.

When comparing the efforts of the Consortium to local ones, the lack of action by key governmental departments becomes more obvious. The USA experience shows diverse departments like Defence, Energy and Health all examining virtual worlds closely. To be fair, there’s obviously a much greater critical mass of employees in the US, but it still does paint a stark contrast to what’s happening in Australia. The tertiary sector is leading the way with little indication of anyone following at the Federal level aside from independent bodies like the ABC and the Australia Council who’ve invested in some impressive projects.

The real risk is that governmental policy in virtual worlds in Australia is driven by the Australian Tax Office and other bodies focused on legislation and regulation. Creating law is a very important part of the evolution of virtual worlds, but a widespread discussion of opportunities is even more important if Australia is to show the level of innovation that the USA is.

Do you agree that the Australian government should be taking a more active role, or is this something that should be driven privately whilst the government considers legislation to create some “safeguards”?

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