Your Papers, Please

Second Life dropped a bomb on its merry Elysium Friday: to get into the ‘mature’ areas of Second Life (which in practice is, well, 90% of Second Life), you’re gonna have to prove you can drink legally. (A further statement here.)

Second Life has always been restricted to those over 18. All Residents personally assert their age on registration. When we receive reports of underage Residents in Second Life, we close their account until they provide us with proof of age. This system works well, but as the community grows and the attractions of Second Life become more widely known, we’ve decided to add an additional layer of protection.

(Snarky emphasis mine. “OMG, there’s an online game where I can pretend to have sex!”)

Said age verification is a bit more stringent then picking a date earlier than 1986 on a web form. Linden is partnering with Aristotle Integrity, a site which…

…integrates a government-issued ID database check, algorithms and web-based signature capture. The service provides merchants and government agencies with Patriot Act compliance and compliance with age verification laws and guidelines.

An MMO with Patriot Act compliance. Oh brave new world, that has such wonders in it.

The initial reaction from SL users: not positive at all.

From what we have been told so far, it does not seem that this new system will be any less prone to fraud than the existing system. Plus, it places burdens of effort and costs on the residents. Also, there doesn’t appear to be any definitive description about what does and does not constitute adult content which historically tends to force overcaution on the part of self-raters. This is most obvious in the comic and computer games industries.

Aristotle Integrity was previously used by Bud.TV to prevent underage tykes from watching a bad Youtube clone.

The Internet, with no government oversight and leaky parental controls, only compounds the problems. Self-imposed age-verification measures are almost laughable in their naïveté. Most ask visitors if they are of age, or ratcheting up the level of difficulty, request people to punch in their dates of birth to ensure they meet the qualifications. All that’s needed to get around that more advanced system are some basic math skills and a desire to sneak past the virtual bouncer. Anheuser-Busch, to its credit, will have one of the smarter gatekeepers keeping watch over Bud.TV. It has bought an identity-verification system used by casinos and banks, Aristotle’s Integrity, which checks the names and Zip codes against driver’s licenses and other public records.

Yet once vetted, there’s nothing to stop Bud.TV viewers from sharing the goodies with under-age friends, relatives or complete strangers on YouTube. Anheuser-Busch executives understand this viral loophole. With its inherent pass-it-on nature, Web video demands to be shared. Not only does it provide street cred; it’s also an inexpensive way to get the word out. And the Bud.TV logo will be emblazoned on every shared video.

Linden Labs isn’t in a good position here. On the one hand, they’ve created a cyberutopian world with all the happy Cory Doctorow-ish platitudes cyberutopias espouse. On the other hand, it seems the most popular activity in cyberutopia is cybering. Whoops. So the onus is on Linden Labs to do SOMETHING before an ageplaying leather-clad furry transgender makes the 9’o-clock news, or worse, the 2008 campaign.

But this OMG WE MUST DO SOMETHING! reaction is dangerous, because it rolls back further the excuse that Linden Labs is simply a common carrier, and has no responsibility over the wacky uses put to their “grid” by their users. The more control they assert over this (and this isn’t the first instance; Linden has also been cracking down on “ageplayers”, or people roleplaying pedophilia), the more they become responsible for that content. And that way truly lies madness.

I wonder if Linden’s long term strategy is to simply open-source everything and let the truly freaky join their own servers, while keeping the “official” Second Life a sterile Disneyland full of marketing and press releases. You know, like PS3@Home. Of course, the question then becomes… would anyone pay for it?