Will Internet censorship soon include Virtual World censorship?

Contrary to popular belief, there is no direct relationship between Australian and American laws. Australians are not afforded all the protections that the American people have access to by law, although in some circumstances Australian society works as though those protections existed. Americans are protected from governmental censorship by the First Amendment to their Constitution. Even though Australian law does not guarantee that governmental censorship will not occur, many Australians assume that we have that protection, and for the most part, this has been borne out in practice, if not in law. Here is a list of rights that are protected by law in Australia.

Stephen Conroy would like to see both law and enforcement of law be enacted with regards to “Internet” censorship.

Senator Conroy is a Catholic, and socially conservative. It is likely  that his wishes will coincide with a minority of users of the Internet, both because the way in which the law is to be enacted is unadvisable, and due to a generalised belief in the right of all Australians to free speech, misplaced or not, especially as regards material available across the Internet.

It is not yet clear from the Senator’s statements who will be in charge of deciding the parameters surrounding the law: what material will and will not be allowed to be transmitted across the Internet, and whether “the Internet” in its entirety will be censored, or whether they are referring only to web pages available over the Internet.

According the the Wikipedia entry concerning Internet censorship, Australia is in the OpenNet Initiative (ONI)’s nominal category as of 2008; content classified “RC” or “X18+” may not be hosted within Australia, and content from outside Australia may be blacklisted.

The filtering aspect is of great concern.

  • The blacklist will not be made available for public consumption.
  • Filtering technology is of very little practical use at this point. A blacklist of every site containing banned or age-limited content would need to be kept.
  • Current filtering boxes slow all Internet traffic, on average, by 30%.
  • The government has declared it will not let internet users opt out of the proposed national internet filter. Source.
  • Finally, this one’s a real doozy – a private company will have access to a record of all traffic passing through the filtering boxes that they provide: essentially, all the Internet traffic in Australia. Interestingly, the government will not necessarily have access to that information.

There does not yet appear to be any information regarding restrictions on content provided by services other than the Web. One wonders how services such as some of the virtual environments might be restricted – except for cutting off access entirely. Banned content from virtual worlds such as Second Life cannot be separated from allowable content by a third party. Perhaps, as with the legislation in Germany and Britain, it will become the responsibility of the individual to keep child pornography and other banned content off their screens; this is the case for all online and print media in these countries. More likely, the Australian legislation will expand to encompass virtual worlds in some way, probably circumventing the whole issue by cutting off access to such worlds altogether. Much as it would be preferable to see better education of our youth regarding these topics, in preparation for becoming responsible, Internet-using adults, it seems more likely that the government will choose to to do the work for us, much as the Chinese government does for its people.

Censorship of the Web has already arrived; how far behind can the censorship of other services be? How disruptive could the censorship of virtual worlds be?

Sex and Google’s Lively – the darker side

I wince sometimes at some of the stuff the Second Life Herald publishes – it’s an individual taste thing – but their expose on the darker side of Google’s Lively is well worth the read. The Herald’s Pixeleen Mistral posed as a 13-year old avatar and was subjected to some unwanted attention.

Any 3D chat experience is going to attract deviants – the challenge for Google is how they manage this.

What has Second Life achieved in five years?

With the upcoming five year anniversary of Second Life’s public existence, there’ll be plenty of editorialising and we’re not about to miss out. Below are the key achievements and challenges arising from Second Life’s first five years.

The achievements:

1. Changing the landscape

There’s no doubt that Second Life broke some serious new ground over the past five years. It was the first virtual world that gave residents enormous freedom and ownership over their creations. This alone makes the past five years a worthwhile exercise. Until then, there were gaming worlds and more restrictive social worlds like The Sims Online. Most importantly, it’s started to change the mindset of the broader population – virtual worlds are no longer just some freaky hobby experienced by a few.

2. Growth

In June 2003 there were 623 registered users of Second Life. Now there’s around 14 million registered users. Using the traditional method of a 10% active user base, that’s 1.4 million active users worldwide. That’s certainly growth, albeit not growth that matches gaming world success stories like World of Warcraft. Given some of the challenges listed below, this growth is arguably surprising and a testament to the user-driven community in Second Life.

3. Marketing

There’s no doubt that Linden Lab have had some real marketing successes, although the biggest story wasn’t created by them – Anshe Chung’s first miilion dollars . There was a deluge of new residents in late 2006 came and Linden Lab ensured the momentum continued well into 2007. The gambling, banking and ageplay bans weren’t perhaps handled as well, but overall Second Life is still perceived as a viable and attractive option in spite of its shortcomings.


4. Transparency

Linden Lab do try at times to maintain some transparency around their decisions and operations although I believe this has declined in some areas over the past year. They’re far from perfect in this regard but still a step ahead of a lot of tech companies.

The challenges:

1. Usability

This is by far and away the biggest issue facing Second Life, particularly if you live outside the USA. Linden Lab have actively touted 2008 as the year of improving the Second Life experience and there’s still a long way to go. It’s now well over a year since the word ‘soon’ was uttered in regard to SL servers based in Australia. Until this occurs there’s little likelihood of significant growth locally as the experience for most people is frustrating to say the least.

2. Relevance

With so many competitors on the horizon, SL will have a battle to maintain its market share, let alone increase it significantly. That said, the open source corse Linden Lab have taken ensures it remains the preeminent virtual worlds platform for now.

3. Interoperability

The works well underway in ensuring different worlds can directly interact but there’s an enormous amount of work still to be done. Projects like OpenSim are leading the way and the list of new grids continues to grow but OpenSim will continue to have an uphill battle against the large number of proprietary worlds underway.


4. Governance

I don’t envy Linden Lab at all as far as its role in deciding what’s acceptable or not. The numerous legal jurisdictions are enough to turn any risk manager’s hair white overnight. Things aren’t going to get any easier either as real world governments finally start to grasp the impact of virtual worlds in a range of areas – intellectual property, taxation, and health and welfare are the three more obvious ones. Linden Lab’s banking ban, ageplay intervention and gambling crackdown have had varying degrees of success – expect more intervention in coming months and years.

The overall report card

It’s hard to imagine that any company could pull off a faultless virtual world creation and expansion, so at the very least some credit needs to be given to Linden Lab, faults and all. The continued expansion of the organisation in a coherent way will make the difference between a relevant and ever-improving virtual world platform and a declining pioneer that lost its way.

Here’s to another five years of innovation and inspiration – and maybe even a more usable virtual worlds for those of us down here.

Over to you – what do you consider have been the highlights and lowlights of Second Life’s first five years?

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.


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.

Linden Lab further clarify ageplay policy

Linden Lab have further clarified their policy on ageplay. The real clarity is around child-like avatars and what is acceptable behaviour – essentially anything sexual is out, including promotion of sex-related products by child-like avatars. The ongoing grey area revolves around defining what is child-like and what isn’t, something Linden Lab acknowledges in their clarification.

I’d also like to see the overall policy in one location, rather than a series of blog posts – hopefully this will occur in the near future. We’ve been clear in our support for Linden Lab’s efforts to date and this is an incremental improvement that should put no-one in doubt about what is acceptable in regards to the Terms of Service.

Is there anything in the clarification you disagree with? Do you feel the definitions are too strict or too lax?

The full announcement:

“We’ve had a number of questions from Residents regarding Second Life’s policy regarding sexual “ageplay,” i.e., depictions of or engagement in sexualized conduct with avatars that resemble children. This practice has been disallowed in recognition of our Community Standards, complaints from Residents, and international laws, so it’s important to understand the definitions.

Under our Community Standards policy, real-life images, avatar portrayals, and other depictions of sexual or lewd acts involving or appearing to involve children or minors are not allowed within Second Life. When detected, individuals and groups promoting or providing such content and activities will be subject to sanctions, which may include termination of accounts, closure of groups, removal of content, and loss of land or access to land.

There are three key aspects, which are in breach of the Community Standards:

(1) participation by Residents in lewd or sexual acts in which one or more of the avatars appears to represent minors (or the depiction of such acts in images, video, textures, or text) is a violation of the Community Standards;

(2) promoting or catering to such behavior or representations violates our Community Standards. For instance, the placement of avatars appearing to represent minors in proximity to “sex beds” or other sexualized graphics, objects, or scripts, would violate our Community Standards, as would the placement of sexualized “pose balls” or other content in areas depicting playgrounds or children’s spaces;

(3) the graphic depiction of children in a sexual or lewd manner violates our Community Standards.

We understand that in some cases there may be an element of subjectivity as to whether an avatar (or other image) appears to be a minor. Objective factors which will be used to decide include whether an avatar has child-like facial features, is sized as a child, has clothing or accessories generally associated with children, and whether, based on the circumstances, an avatar is speaking or acting like a child (e.g. “My Mommy says…”).

If you are in doubt as to whether an activity may be interpreted as ageplay, we request you err on the side of caution and desist. Please note that some countries’ laws may impose penalties for graphics, drawings or anime that resemble child pornography, even where no children have been involved.

Linden Lab reserves the right to immediately terminate the accounts of Residents who violate these standards.

Of course, any images, chat or other conduct which leads us to believe actual minor children are involved will lead to swift action, including reporting to the appropriate authorities.

Please note it does not violate this policy merely to have a child-like avatar. It is not our intent to banish child-like avatars in and of themselves.

We appreciate the Community’s continued support in reporting abuses of these standards, and we hope this helps answer any questions about this topic and our policy. To report a violation of the policy, please go to the Help/Report Abuse feature in your Second Life viewer, and follow the instructions given.”

The Wonderland saga – ageplay focus increases

Over the past day, the ageplay investigations by UK authorities has well and truly hit the mainstream media. WIth gambling now gone from SL, sex was always going to be the issue that piques the media’s interest, particularly when it potentially involves children.

At SLOz we’ve been contacted today by a couple of mainstream media outlets including one of the national TV news services. NineMSN has a perfunctory story on its site. Our comments to the media matched those we’ve made here: any efforts to remove child pornography are to be applauded, determining the actual age of SL users is fraught with difficulty and Linden Lab have a significant issue on their hands.

Linden Lab’s response response today is a re-hash of its previous position i.e. ‘tell us when you see it happen and we’ll investigate’. We’re assuming this is an initial response – there’s a momentum growing in a number of countries now and the status quo probably isn’t going to be good enough.

Update: there’s a sizeable discussion on the saga at TechCrunch.

Pornography and virtual worlds

In the eleven months SLOz has been running, one of the most vexed questions about Second Life and virtual worlds in general in pornography. Our story on Linden Lab’s ban on ageplay is the most viewed story on SLOz and by an extremely large margin – its follow-up is also regularly read. The reason for the enormous number of views comes down to the venerable search engine.

Each day we get hundreds of views of the ageplay story, through people typing a bunch of terms into Google or other search engines. Some of the more common being used are:

– child porn
– virtual child porn
– preteen porn
– preteen panties
– beastiality
– virtual porn
– legal porn
– child panties

There are a bunch of other ones I won’t publish here, suffice it to say there are some sick people out there. What it illustrates is the universality of the issue across the internet. Linden Lab’s crackdown appears to have been effective in minimising overt ageplay. What it can’t do is minimise the significant demand for undesirable images nor the dilemma of defining what consitutes pornography or otherwise.

Where do you see this issue progressing in future?

Facing the harm

The SL Herald has run an article entitled ‘What’s the Harm?’, mirroring the name of the exhibit covered by that and this story. The exhibition is essentially an onslaught of images depicting sexual ageplay and some extreme fetishes within Second Life, most sourced from the SL search feature.


It’s powerful and has already engendered a lot of discussion. We’ve covered the ageplay issue previously and made the point it’s a murky moral area with wider societal implications. One of the more admirable aspects of the exhibition is the ability to provide your comments, which are then posted as part of the exhibit if you consent to do so.

Check it out in-world (You’ll need to walk across the bridge and click on the ‘What’s The Harm’ sign to teleport to the exhibit.)

Ageplay three months after the ban

It’s been just over three months since the ageplay ban instigated by Linden Lab. There’s been no reports of ageplay sexual exploits in SL since that time although there’d be no doubt it’s occurred. There also remains an enormous range of children’s clothes, skins and accessories on offer:



To test the level of risk for an avatar in child form, we logged in on an alternative account as a child avatar and spent some time wandering around a number of clubs in SL to see if any approaches were made for sex. In the hour or so we did this, we weren’t approached but on the other hand, no-one was at all peturbed by a little boy watching their activities:


Some clubs do have prominent warnings on the issue although just as many don’t:



Overall, the ban may have stopped overt displays of ageplay sexual activity and instilled significant wariness of those frequenting the more popular sex clubs, but all of the support mechanisms are healthy and well. What are your thoughts on the issue? Are there valid reasons for over-18’s to be involved in ageplay, sexual or otherwise?

Australian Federal Police: We’re Watching

Mick Keelty, Commissioner of the Australian Federal Police is quoted in today’s Sydney Morning Herald as saying that the AFP are aware of online scams in virtual worlds, including Second Life. Nothing particularly surprising there. Keelty is also realistic about the challenges of policing virtual worlds, admitting it will be “difficult”.


There’d be widespread support for their involvement with the Virtual Global Taskforce which has a strong child protection focus and comprises the Australian Federal Police, the Australian High Tech Crime Centre, the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre in the UK, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the US Department of Homeland Security, Interpol and the Italian National Police. The test for the AFP will be drawing the line between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in a way that protects innocent parties whilst maintaining freedom of expression.

One thing is certain – any Australian believing their activities in Second Life are beyond scrutiny are deluding themselves to the highest degree.

Previous Posts