March 1, 2007

Second Life's in-world terrorism and the struggle for digital rights

Second Life, the immensely popular 3-dimensional virtual world, is really starting to take on a life of its own. There are things going on in there that have undoubtedly gone beyond the wildest expectations of its developers.

The latest issue to grab my attention is the phenomenon of in-world terrorism and the rise of self-professed freedom fighters. These folks aren't your run-of-the-mill hackers or griefers looking to cause mischief. Rather, these are 'activists' who are working subversively within Second Life (SL) to achieve political ends. Their goal is to extend digital rights for SL users beyond the standard customer-company relationship. Subsequently, by dealing with current in-world problems they are, perhaps unintentionally, looking ahead to the day when Second Life and other virtual worlds play a much more meaningful role in our lives.

Avatars of Second Life, unite!

Specifically, I am referring to the Second Life Liberation Army (SLLA). Their intention is
to liberate SL users from the perceived tyranny of Linden Labs, the developer of SL. The group was formed as the in-world paramilitary wing of a national liberation movement. They argue that universal suffrage is a right that should be established within SL immediately. The SLLA, who is led by 'political officer' Marshal Cahill, contends that Linden Labs has gone beyond its mandate and is now functioning as a de facto authoritarian government. Consequently, they see in-world fighting as the "only appropriate response."

Annoyed by the steady encroachment of corporations like Reebok and IBM, the SLLA works to undermine their virtual presence through disruption -- what has been dubbed in-world terrorism. They set off "atomic bombs" and fire guns at other users. Their shenanigans are often posted on YouTube.

Obviously no one really gets hurt, but the intention is to create annoyances that will make the gaming experience uncomfortable and bring attention to their struggle. They say they will not seek to harm the normal operation of the world and will only attack "agents of the state" and other strategically important sites within SL.

The SLLA demands are,
The establishment of basic 'rights' for Second Life Players. Having consulted widely we now believe the best vehicle for this is for Linden Labs to offer public shares in the company. We propose that each player is able to buy one share for a set-price. This would serve both the development of the world and provide the beginnings of representation for avatars in Second Life.
A growing concern among users is land scarcity. Second Life has experienced such rapid growth that Linden Labs has been unable to keep up with the demand, which has in turn created land scarcity. Corporations, say the SLLA, are scooping up land and putting up eye sores.

A new world order?

Cahill describes himself as a kind of John Adams -- a revolutionary who is just trying to make the world a better place. The analogy is certainly interesting. Many New World settlers who emigrated from Europe were certain that they could establish radically new social orders in the Americas. Early settler John Winthrop was famous for saying "we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us." The goal was to create a new Zion free from European conventions and political baggage.

Today, Second Life and other virtual reality environments reveal the very real possibility that virtual space is livable space. Like the New World, it is virgin territory, unspoilt and open-ended (with all due respect to native Americans). The prospect for social renewal has some political ideologues (including some transhumanists) frothing at the mouth in consideration of the possibilities. In their mind utopia is only a few mouse clicks away.

At least until the big nasty corporations come in and rain on the parade. And that is precisely why the SLLA has taken it upon themselves to uproot what they perceive to be a very serious problem.

Personal livelihood and distributed personhood

Linden Labs claims that by allowing corporations to operate in Second Life they have opened a legitimate revenue stream. It's only recently, they say, that they have become a profitable company.

Which brings up an important question: is Linden Labs accountable in the way the SLLA claims they should be? There are a number of factors to consider.

First, Linden Labs is a company, not a government. Users are paying customers who voluntarily enter SL for entertainment purposes. Some even make a couple of bucks on the side. At the same time, however, users are the cogs that run the machine. In this sense they are like collaborators or workers who keep the environment running. The l
ine distinguishing customer and collaborator is becoming hazy.

That said, there are two critical aspects to consider as virtual worlds mature: personal livelihood and distributed personhood.

Linden Labs opened a huge can of worms by allowing an internal economy to exist in-world. Savvy users are finding ways to make a living by exploiting scarcity in SL. Consequently, more and more people are becoming dependent on SL for their income. Moreover, it's not unreasonable to suggest that many future business models will come depend on virtual environments of this sort. They will be places to conduct business.

Second, due to rich and realistic in-world experiences, a significant degree of personhood is transmitted into cyberspace. Users tend to become attached to their SL personas; their avatars are their extended self.

Looking ahead to regulation

These considerations suggest that tangible harm and injustice can be done to an individual in the virtual world. The line separating the real from the synthetic is blurring, which necessarily means that civil laws will at some point have to extend into cyberspace. If it can be determined that customers are being harmed by the company running the virtual environment, and that the activities and ventures within the world transcend the company-customer relationship, then regulation and policing will have to be considered.

I completely anticipate the day when virtual worlds become regulated. How this will be accomplished, however, is a mystery to me -- particularly considering the fact that a nearly unlimited number of virtual worlds can run independent of one another, each with their own rules and agendas. There will be as many worlds as there are ideas, including anarchist states, communist utopias, religious havens, hedonistic wonderlands and surreal environments.

My initial suspicion is that sanctioned and unsanctioned virtual environments will arise. Sanctioned worlds will be regulated and relatively safe, while users will take their lives and livelihoods into their own hands by venturing into unsanctioned areas.

On a related note, a time will come when people start to demand ubiquitous access to the Internet and the right to enter and operate within specific virtual worlds. People will start to insist on safe and fair environments in which they can work and play. Further, they will insist on citizenship rights for integral virtual worlds.

In the meantime groups like the SLLA will, perhaps naively, continue to agitate and fight for increased political rights and economic privileges in cyberspace. They will undoubtedly fail in their attempt to alter Linden Labs' business model, but it's the precedent of their work that's important. Human activity is very quickly migrating into cyberspace and it appears that humanity is taking their baggage with them.


Jennifer Eli said...

In terms of regulation of interaction in digital areas, things as simple as IMVU which have sexual interaction had to set limitations and regulate how sexual interaction happenned there. Originally a stranger could walk in and simply press a button and have "sex" with any avatar of their choosing without consent. This basically translated to digital "rape" and the amount of personhood invested in the chat avatars meant that the ramifications were not small. Since a large number of complaints were filed by the users of the environment, new rules were put in place that banned even suggestive actions without adding as a "buddy" first and also mandated purchase of "adult passes" to bare flesh and interact in more advanced sexual ways. This is a first step in that environment towards acknowledging and protecting certain basic parts of rights, in my estimation.

Martin Wurzinger said...

What I don't understand is why outfits like Linden Lab don’t make their virtual environments available, for a fee, to sociologists, politicians, etc etc to test out certain individuals or groups as to their possible effects on the rest.