Welcome to the Real Life!

Gwyn in front of the FBI buildingSecond Life Residents woke up on Wednesday, July 25th, to the sudden (but not wholly unexpected) change of Linden Lab’s policy regarding gambling in Second Life. After advertising casinos was removed from all Linden-supported advertisement systems, this move should not have come as a huge surprise. We all knew that Linden Lab has been closely working with the FBI and other regulatory authorities to make sure that LL is never to be held liable for residents eventually breaking Californian law.

There is really not much to be said and done about the (wholly predictable) conclusion to this process. We can pretend that Second Life is “a country of its own” — like Philip Rosedale was so proudly presenting to Wired in May, 2004 — and do a few things in SL that are simply not possible (or illegal) in the real world. But, ultimately, Linden Lab is a Californian company, and subject to Californian law. And no matter what we do and say, no matter where we live in or pay our taxes, we all have agreed to subscribe to the Terms of Service that places our relationship with Linden Lab’s Second Life under the jurisdiction of Californian Law.


Gambling Protest 001There have always been attempts to create utopias inside a country’s own jurisdiction — an utopian enclave, so to speak. They all failed — ultimately, like it or not, you cannot escape your country’s own laws. And the more you fight to break them, the more likely it is that you’re forced to shut down, go to jail, and forget about your “utopia”. For us residents, what is now happening is simply a “waking up” to reality: it’s not a game, it’s not a country, it’s real life under real laws.

The only real “unregulated” community in the world is the Internet — since no single entity or single country “owns” it — and in spite of many countries’ attempts to close it, filter it, or censor it (China being often quoted as the most successful example so far), it’s still “there”. There will always be a country where a silly law in another country is disregarded or disrespected, and you can set your own server there, and have the freedom to do whatever you wish.

Gambling Protest 002Alas, Second Life is not the “Internet” — not yet. Technically, from a legal point of view, it’s a service provided by a Californian company, even if well over 95% of its users are not in California. Still, since Linden Lab is bound to remain in San Francisco for quite a long time, they have no option but to comply with local, state, and federal laws.

They were clever and have postponed the inevitable for quite some time. In many cases they have discarded a lot of liability and responsibility here and there. They’re very likely wanting to apply for “carrier” status at some point in time — so that they can simply forfeit any responsibility and let people take it instead.

That ruse did not work out. The FBI was faster to interfere, and to make sure Linden Lab complies first with the local laws, and then applies for whatever non-liability status they might be able to apply for. LL was too slow.

Fix it technically

Gambling Protest 003We also know how eagerly Linden Lab is to promote “code is law” — I won’t discuss that concept here, since it’s so dear to the techno-delighted crowds — but actually, to work around local legal limitations, there is an easy way out: “go Internet”. This basically means decentralise the system, set up grids under different countries (and totally different legislations), interconnect them all in a coherent whole (ie. the same avatar being able to jump from sim to sim in different grids without feeling the difference), and let local laws apply just to single parts of the “overall” grid. This would mean that you could have all the casino sims on some European countries (in some cases, paying a small license for around US$200 or so allows you to host a low-payment online betting site) and all the ageplay sims on the Californian sims. Distributing the sims across legislative aspects in different countries — just like the Internet does! — will, at the end, give people more freedom, since instead of being subject to the lowest common denominator (the “Disneyland scenario”, as I call it), people, like on the Internet, would be subject to the sum of all possibilities. Of course, this would come at the expense of being also more subject to less legal protection in case of criminal activities such as money laundering, weapons traffic, or drug dealers using SL to coordinate deliveries (“With great power comes great responsibility” — Spiderman). However, the Internet has shown us that “more freedom” can be allowed, and that the negative sides of the Web in 2007 are almost forgotten — although, of course, over a third of the Web is still about porn, and quite a slice of it is still about illegal activities for some countries. But among the 2 billion web pages, we tend to minimise the few thousands that are borderline. They’re just too few to bother the media to write about them.

Again, Linden Lab tried that route as well. They are now operating two grids — one in California, one in Texas — for half a year or so. This allows them to fix the issues of interconnecting physically separate grids — the first step for decentralisation. Sadly, the results are not overwhelmingly positive: it’s way harder than they thought. So don’t expect miracles before 2009. There is quite a lot to fix yet.

The Race Against Time

Gambling Protest 004So what happens next? We know that the FBI has talked to LL about casinos; the next visit will probably be about prostitution and pornography. We have already some hints from Linden Lab regarding the next changes: resident validation, flagging of adult content, just like on YouTube, MySpace, or similar social websites. We know it’s under development and that it’ll be deployed as soon as LL integrates the code that allows it. It surely will be coming before Christmas. Will that be enough?

We don’t know. In April, it seemed like not actively promoting casinos was going to be enough: three months later, without any delays, a policy was announced (not even a ToS change!) that all casinos had to be removed — immediately. There was no advance notice given. LL, through their ToS, are able to do with the content whatever they wish (thus making them also liable for the content!), so they could forcefully get rid of the casinos on their own and shut down all avatars who participated in “online gambling venues”. They were nice and allowed people to cash out their proceedings first, sell their sims, and go peacefully away — or as peacefully as possible. Obviously the protests are going on, and they will continue; people are not happy about having the FBI telling them what to do — specially if, as said, less than 5% of the resident population s subject to Californian laws. Getting someone else’s laws imposed on you against your will is definitely not something that people are happy about.

Still, Linden Lab now started the big race against time. The goal: multiple, interconnected grids, on different countries, ran by different companies, in about 2009. That’s what they’re working on — as fast as they can. What will happen in the mean time? Blow after blow as more personal freedoms are taken away from us residents and LL struggles to remain afloat in the nightmare of legal conflicts.

The race for freedom has started and its pace will accelerate — but we can’t forget that the rate of preventing those freedoms to continue will accelerate as well! The FBI has far more resources than LL has developers. They have given us a taste of what they can do — very quickly if needed! — to rule out any possibility of LL to pursue their semi-utopian goals of an unregulated space on the Internet. Since LL cooperates — and will continue to cooperate! — they can only do one thing: buy time. Precious developer time. By complying with this and that ruling, and maintaining a positive attitude towards the local law enforcement agencies, they are desperately struggling to avoid being shut down before the distributed grid becomes a reality. But… we’re not there yet. We just have an open source client.

Disneyland

Gambling Protest 005So our fear is that Linden Lab is “not fast enough”. We know they have serious problems in recruiting as many developers as they need. They have stretched themselves thin in setting up further offices — several in California, one in Seattle, one in Boston, one in Brighton, UK — in their continuing effort of attracting highly qualified developers. They’ve bought a company to give them WindLight and 5 extra programmers. They might do more and more. Philip has even called out for help from us residents. He seriously means it. He wants SL to continue to grow, and the platform to be as open as possible, and spread across the world as fast as possible. Riding the virtual surf of what now looks like to be a tsunami of legal complexities, Philip wants to stay afloat and on top of this surfboard — and safely land on the beach of personal freedoms. But that requires a massive deployment of human resources. Linden Lab can afford to hire them, but… they’re simply not available.

So the fear is that LL is not fast enough, and that they’re going to crash not on the promised land, but on the hard and edgy rocks of Puritanism and politically-correctness. What this means is that they’ll have to strip off all non-political-correct content (as defined by Californian law, not by its residents) one bit at a time — the “Disneyland scenario”. Disney is very good as a global content producer because they limit themselves to be strictly PG. One might question how the Disney cartoons create functional families if they’re all “aunts and uncles” of each other (and more often “cousins” than “brothers”), but we don’t want Disney to promote the strange idea that people reproduce through sex, do we? 🙂

The issue with a “politically-correct Second Life” is that it’ll not only lose appeal to the residents (while, on the other side, increasing the appeal for corporations, organisations, and universities), but it’ll have to compete on a more level field with similar projects of other virtual worlds, who are mostly politically correct. This means that a slice of the current SL population that is in SL because it’s not Disneyland will very likely feel no more interest in the platform, and, between choosing politically correct worlds, they’d pick the one that looks nicer and is easier to use.

Big Brother Is Watching You!

Gambling Protest 006There is still another aspect of Second Life that is changing. So far, the direct intervention of Linden Lab in the platform was a mixed blessing: sometimes interfering too much (just read the many conspiration theories surrounding how LL benefits certain residents while ignoring others), sometimes too little (absolutely no protection from in-world fraud or illegal/suspicious commercial activities; Abuse Reports taking too long to get processed, and using very opaque methods). However, in recent times, Linden Lab seemed to have picked the route that would please most of the residents: a zero intervention policy, basically telling us that we were basically on our own, and it would be our choice to do more and more self-policing and self-governing. In effect, the way Linden Lab was thinking was to empower the residents, instead of interfering — and that each and every one of us would be basically assuming full responsibility for our own acts.

This is something common to companies trying to get rid of the “service provider” classification and aiming for “carrier” status. In effect, LL provides very little “service” these days, except for hosting the grid simulator servers. Sure, they still have the Concierge and Liaison teams, and they definitely do have a registration site, but all these tasks are also being provided by other residents. Kaizen Games with Second Life Brazil is perhaps the best-known example of what Linden Lab calls a “Second Life Grid Global Provider” — they do it all on their own, except, of course, hosting the servers. Even the client is specially designed by them. And it’s no secret that LL wants to grow and expand the same model with other companies, in other countries (or multiple similar providers in the US). The point is having as little to do with the residents, and letting other organisations do most of the tedious work of dealing with them.

Well… clearly the FBI is not going to allow them the easy way out. Very, very clearly, LL is being pushed to make sure that SL complies to Californian law. What does that mean to the SL Grid Global Provider programme? Basically, that other companies in other countries are allowed to “run their own environment” — as long as they fully comply with Californian Law. And, more than that, it means that Linden Lab is “forced” to make sure that everybody is nicely (and hopefully voluntarily) following Californian Law. Put in other words: just now when LL was actively “moving out” from the Grid and letting residents do whatever they wished (and fully assume responsibility for it), LL has now to become once more involved in policing what we’re doing. And this time it’s for real (pun not intended!).

The Disneyland Police State

“Thoughtcrime does not entail death. Thoughtcrime IS death” — George Orwell, “1984”

My own background makes me obviously strongly suspicious of any organisation that wants to control how people are supposed to think. The “politically-correctness” of contemporary speech and writing does, indeed, irritate me, specially in its paternalistic form: “you don’t know what you’re saying, let me tell you what you should be thinking”. In Second Life, however, we were “born and raised”, since 2003, to assume a more tolerant attitude towards our fellow residents (Linden Lab’s mission, stated on their website, still claims: To connect us all to an online world that advances the human condition.). We might not like what we see around us, but we have several ways of dealing with it: ignoring it (ie. not visiting the places or the people that offend our own moral codes); speaking against it (we have freedom of speech to raise our voices against what we don’t like); leading by example (doing what you believe in and attracting similar-minded people). In a tolerant, egalitarian, democratic society, these are at the base of what ought to be our attitude towards our fellow citizens.

No society is obviously perfect and one should accept human condition as being not perfect, instead of complaining about the lack of perfection. Naturally enough, morality and ethics are quite often imposed from above — and much less emerging from the roots and then slowly trickling to the top. Second Life had this fascinating environment where actually the rules came from the people who inhabited this world, and not really set up “from above”, with the few exceptions stated on the Community Rules “imposed” by Linden Lab — and, as said, even those were very likely to be slowly phased out as LL would put more and more things in the hands of the residents.

Casinos and gambling are mostly a morality issue. The usual argument against gambling is that it is an addictive activity that ultimately corrupts the mind of the hopelessly addicted that will ruin his own life and that of his family, and thus the State is supposed to deal with the issue. Tolerant countries simply regulate gambling (ensuring that at least the games are fair and not tampered with) and extract heavy taxes from casinos, which, in turn, slowly trickle back towards the people who have been most affected by the nightmares of addiction. Intolerant countries simply outban it, and the mere notion of “gambling” is labeled as thoughtcrime.

Well, I live in real life near a Casino, and I’ve definitely met people who were hopelessly ruined due to gambling. Nevertheless, the same applies to many other activities of human life: like drinking, smoking, eating cholesterol-saturated foods or carbonated drinks, or simply leading unhealthy lifestyles. Gambling is just another one of those many activities; one should be educated and forewarned of what all this can lead to — and the education and forewarning comes from parents, school, government — but ultimately we’re talking about individual choice. I’m a smoker by choice; I know that I’ll die from cancer; but it’s still my choice. An alcoholic will probably claim the same, even if driving under the influence of alcohol can indeed put your family — and the families of the other drivers! — at risk, just like gambling. In fact, just taking a look at statistics, alcohol leads to many more broken homes, ruined families, and ruptures in communities than gambling. Still, drinking alcohol remains a tolerated activity; while gambling is not, at least in certain parts of the world.

So while there are obviously moralists that might prefer to ban all “thoughtcrime” from our society, I side with the ones that claim that personal freedom is far more important to safeguard than “thoughtcrime”. Linden Lab, until recently, defended the same views, and although moralists all over the short history of Second Life have raised their voices to put a ban on gambling, LL silently ignored them.

This is all very encouraging — indeed, “an online world that advances the human condition” where residents understand the value of personal freedoms and the right not to get bullied by others with their pseudo-moralities and political correctness (people might not gamble but still drive under the influence of alcohol and go faithfully to Church every Sunday) — but sadly Linden Lab is unfortunate to be not only under the legislation of California, but also to enjoy, for quite a while, a huge media coverage on “their” Second Life — which attracts the attention of the authorities.
And here the clashing comes between LL’s idealism and the reality. LL was suddenly woken up in their virtual beds by Real Law and the foundations of a society that perversely claims the right of imposing their own ways of thinking upon others — even if they are not, technically speaking, under their jurisdiction. In real life, in the state of California, “online gambling” is simply not allowed, and while LL is physically located on Californian soil, they have no choice but to obey. The mere fact that it is not LL that promotes online gambling — but the residents of Second Life! — is not important. By imposing political-correctness from above, LL has no choice but to abandon their own idealistic mission and their views, and enforce the removal of personal freedom inside a virtual world, no matter that this virtual world, in effect, is not “theirs” but made of 8.2 million registered accounts, of which perhaps not even 5% are, in fact, subject to Californian laws.

It became suddenly clear to Linden Lab that they are unable to “advance the human condition” — at least, regarding personal freedoms — as long as they have no option but to obey the state laws of California and the federal laws of the US and abandon any “social experiments” on empowering residents with a more tolerant view of their own (collectively built) universe. LL has learned the lesson that, under the current model, it’s impossible for residents to self-regulate or self-impose their own ethics and their own laws. In effect, this was just an illusion of freedom, that was maintained for four years, while not enough people took notice of Second Life and its impact on the media.

I can imagine the disappointment at Linden Lab these days. In effect, their experiment, set under the legal conditions they’ve got to endure, could be ultimately failing, at least regarding the “advancement of human condition”. Not only that — it would have been acceptable to fail because the residents did not realise how fundamental their role was — but LL is now being required, by law, to actively suppress any “thoughtcrime” that might happen inside a world that LL claims to be the residents’ and not theirs.

I don’t seriously believe that this will stop with “gambling”. A lot that goes on in Second Life is also forbidden by either state or federal laws — even if it’s allowed on other states, or other countries, which definitely outnumber dramatically the number of Californian residents. I’m pretty sure that the next attack will come from the IRS — you might have noticed that almost all sites that allow you to get some form of payment are now linking your personal data to taxpayers’ information (from Google AdSense to GoDaddy) — or the regulatory authorities on pornography and prostitution. Another typical example of future content suppression is “selling sexual content” in SL. If it’s text and images, it’s pornography, and it’s even allowed under certain circumstances. But we have now voice in SL, and from the many discussions I’ve read on forums and blogs, voice is heavily used for dating services — often for a L$ fee. Well, “voice sex” — or, rather, “phone sex” — is a regulated activity in California. Expect the authorities to start investigating that as well — and very soon, after the big success of suppressing gambling in SL. Encouraged by a series of successes in banning “politically incorrect behaviour” and suppressing personal freedom in SL, I can only imagine that the regulatory authorities will not stop (why should they?) and continue to force LL to take more and more measures — until, again, LL has no way out but to “go Disneyland”.

A New Hope?

The Internet is the only successful example that we know of where all this enforcement of the suppression of personal freedoms never managed to grab a hold. Since it’s so vast, spanning all countries and hundreds of jurisdictions, there is always a spot where you can “be free”. Online gaming might be forbidden for US citizens, but that doesn’t affect the rest of the world where gambling is allowed (and US citizens still find ways to reach the “forbidden servers”, of course). It’s true that many states are controlling the flux of money that comes through Internet services — but it’s not less true that new services tend to pop up to compensate for the ones that have been shut down. Even China, the most successful country in regulating how the Internet works according to the totalitarian views of its government, has lots of holes in their firewalls where Chinese citizens, if they really wish, are able to get access to what locally is “forbidden content” (there are a lot of Chinese residents in SL). If you have a webcam and forget to change your MSN/Yahoo nickname to a neutral name, and keep your clearly female name visible to all, you’ll be hit in almost no time with all sorts of youngsters in Muslim countries thirsty for watching someone not wearing a burka (while, at the same time, getting drunk in front of their computers). People in countries under war or civil turmoil (it happened in Indonesia in 1999; it happens in Iraq these days), where the press is censored and information is sparse, always managed to get access to different views of reality without censorship, by connecting to foreign services. If our grandchildren are lucky enough to live in a “better world”, I’m pretty sure that they’ll point to the Internet — and not TV! — as being the major thought-provoking instrument of demolishing barriers, censorship, and overall political correctness “imposed from above”. Unlike our grandparents, who probably never suspected how restricted their personal freedoms were, we live in a world where individually we might be restricted (depending on which country we happen to live in), but, through the Internet, we have an open window showing us the reality — and we can hope that our grandchildren will manage to open that window far and wide.

Second Life, however, does not work like the Internet — yet. If in 2004 people claimed for a decentralised model just because of better performance; if in 2005 they yearned for open source code in order to run their own servers elsewhere and escape the “tyranny” of LL’s pricing; in 2007, we yearn for personal freedom and breaking free from the grasps of the ones imposing their local variety of thoughtcrime upon us.

If Linden Lab needed any further excuse to accelerate the very hard and difficult process of decentralising the grid and run it in different countries — and under different companies — to continue with their stated mission, well, this is the time to seriously boost this development. Realistically speaking, however, we’re two years away from that.

The question is if we will survive as a freethinking community until 2009.

Good luck, Linden Lab.

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