Privacy and Protection, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Who Should Control Freedoms in Virtual Worlds?

Apropos of yesterday’s odd and oddly disturbing move by the Australian government, a new blog post on Metanomics asks the question: “Who Should Responsible for Assuring Fundamental Freedoms in Virtual Worlds?”

The post, by Metanomics government and policy correspondent Sterling Wright asks whether virtual worlds should be considered services or places, ISPs or ‘cultures’. She points to Europe:

The Council of Europe seek(s) to define the responsibilities of ISPs. The Council’s Guidelines reflect an effort to apply to ISPs the responsibility of assuring “human rights” on the web. The Council argues that access to internet services is increasingly a prerequisite for engaging in a comprehensive, participatory democracy in an information society. Therefore, by providing the basic infrastructure that allows users to access and use the Internet, ISPs deliver a valuable public service and are in a unique position to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms, and may even have the responsibility to do so.

In a separate set of guidelines applying to games, The Council explicitly ruled out virtual worlds as games arguing that: “such universes only to a lesser degree constitute a programmed experience under the control of a game publisher. Virtual universes also lack a specified gaming scenario and set of goals to achieve.”

But she points to a conundrum:

“ISPs are cautioned against removing content, as doing so could be seen as an abridgement of the freedom of expression. However, even in virtual worlds where users are able to create their own content, platform providers commonly maintain the right to remove any and all of it “for any reason or no reason and without liability.” The conundrum is clear— providers are rightfully concerned about being held legally liable for allowing certain types of content and yet removing material too hastily might breach the right to freedom of expression.”

The conundrum is playing out with the potential of the Australian laws to limit access to virtual worlds, including Second Life, because of content ‘inappropriate for a 15-year old”. Is this taking the view that a virtual world is a place or a service? And what about the comment that virtual worlds are not games? Why is there such a divergence between Europe’s view, and that of an element of Australian government? Is it just a fringe?

Finally, I can’t help thinking that the Obama administration will have some choice words for the Australian government - with a multi-billion dollar game industry under fire, surely there’s an economic incentive for governments to give them a nudge in the direction of saner policy?

(And for more on Obama and the Web, check out the latest Metanomics episode with Kevin Werbach, advisor to the FCC and Obama transition team member. Transcript is also available).


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