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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Second Life to Adopt Age Verification
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A debate is raging over at the Second Life blog about Linden Labs' (LL) annoucement that the company plans on imposing age verification requirements on its users starting in mid-May. LL says they are making this move "to insure that minors do not inadvertently access Second Life or have access to adult content in-world. In addition, age verification provides an additional layer of trust for in-world businesses and Residents."

Those are certainly worthy goals. But LL face two very challenging issues in attempting to implement this plan:

(1) Will verification work?

The LL release provides some rough details about how their new age verification scheme will work:

Residents will provide a few simple details about their identity – generally, name, date of birth, and address. US Residents will be asked to provide the last four digits of their Social Security Number, while non-US Residents may need to provide a passport or national ID number.

Commenting on all this over at the Information Week blog, Mitch Wagner says that LL's move to age-verify is "almost certainly legally necessary, to protect the company and adult content providers in-world from civil and criminal prosecution. But, still, it's a bad idea. It won't stop kids from accessing adult content. And it provides tremendous opportunity for identity thieves, creating a rich store of Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, dates of birth, and other identifying information." And in response to LL's notice that: "The verification system will be run by a third party specializing in age and identity authentication," Wagner responds: "Oh, good! Another party brought into the fray to create another possible point of failure where information might leak out to identity thieves!"

Indeed, these are all serious problems that Wagner is right to raise. As I pointed out in my recent study "Social Networking and Age Verification: Many Hard Questions; No Easy Solutions," online age verification is a very tricky business and is by no means fool-proof. The reality is that it is significantly more challenging to establish identity and age in an online (digital) context than it is in offline (tangible) environments. And efforts to force identify verification on unwilling digital masses create a number of other problems, including the possibility of mass evasion and fraud. Finally, as Mitch Wagner suggests, the privacy concerns are palpable. Because more sensitive information is required to verify identity at a distance (social security numbers, driver's ID numbers, passports, credit cards, etc), it opens the door to serious security threats.

It remains to be seen how LL works this all out. One can imagine that a lot of users will rebel against the system if it is overly restrictive.

(2) Will residents self-label "adult" content?

But what is even more interesting about this LL proposal is how they want Second Life residents begin self-labeling "adult content." Here's what LL said in its blog:

Once the age verification system is in place, only those Residents with verified age will be able to access adult content in Mature areas. Any Resident wishing to access adult content will have to prove they are over 18 in real life. We have created Teen Second Life for minors under the age of 18. Access to TSL by adults is prohibited, with minors not allowed into the rest of Second Life.

For their part, land owners will be required to flag their land as ‘adult’ if it contains adult content using the estate and land management tools provided to landowners. This flag will protect landowners from displaying inappropriate content to underage users who may have entered Second Life. Landowners are morally and legally responsible for the content displayed and the behavior taking place on their land. The identity verification system gives them new tools to ensure any adult content is only available to adults over 18 because unverified avatars will not have access to land flagged as containing adult content.

We hope you’ll agree that the small inconvenience of doing this once is far outweighed by the benefits of protecting minors from inappropriate content. Further, this system will assist landowners in engaging in lawful businesses.

Later on in the release, LL tries to deal with the very tricky issue about how “Adult Content” should be defined by users. They say: "We trust that common sense will prevail. As a general rule, “Adult Content” is any content that is explicitly sexual or excessively violent in nature." Hmmm... We'll have to wait and see how the millions of Second Life residents interpret that!

I'm not ready to predict that this plan will fail completely, but I am highly skeptical about both the age verification plan and self-labeling proposal. Second Life is global platform and it will be very difficult to properly verify the identity of all its virtual residents. And because the Second Life citizens come from diverse cultures and backgrounds, it will also be quite challenging for LL to create consensus about "adult" content and get residents to self-label with any sort of rational consistency.

There's also the problem of people trading accounts or avatars. If I sell my old avatar on eBay (along with the password / verification to get on the site) or just give it to a friend, how do we know the person who bought it or is using it is a minor or an adult? Will there be follow-up verification procedures? If so, one can imagine some users getting a little peeved about that level of potential intrusiveness.

And there are many other issues that I haven't posed here but that various commenters on the LL blog are raising right now. It will be interesting to see how this experiment plays out.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 10:30 AM | Free Speech , Mass Media , Privacy

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