Second Life on the Hill: U.S. House Members Seek to Understand Virtual Worlds

April 01 2008 / by Marisa Vitols / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Metaverse   Year: 2008   Rating: 10 Hot

The following is a summary of the key moments that transpired during the U.S. House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet hearing on Virtual Worlds held April 1, 2008. This marked the first ever simulcast of a Congressional hearing into a virtual world – a truly historic moment.

Spanning the positive uses of virtual worlds (entrepreneurial, non-profit, educational, and other purposes) as well as the security implications (terrorism, child protection, privacy and illegal activities) the first-of-its-kind hearing finally came to a close at 11:15 AM this morning after nearly two full hours of position statements and riveting Q&A.

Subcommittee members’ opening speeches covered general statistics, implications, applications and potential futures of virtual worlds. Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey of Massachusetts (pictured second) noted that virtual worlds often permit people to do things that are often impossible in real life, thus empowering individuals and that virtual worlds are at the cutting edge of web 2.0 applications. As per the future of virtual worlds, the Chairman said that virtual worlds are steadily becoming more commonplace and therefore policymakers will have to continue to monitor them as they grow further while upgrading national infrastructure to foster the positive utilities of such worlds.

Congressman Stearns of Florida (pictured third) cited an interesting statistic in his opening remarks, that 40% of men and 50% of women see virtual friends as equal or better than their real-life friends. He found this a bit unsettling, and elucidated his concern for sexual predators and con-men inevitably finding their way into virtual worlds, as they did the internet.

Congresswoman Harman of California echoed many of the same positive implications of virtual worlds, but seemed most concerned with the use of virtual worlds by Islamic militants, noting that a “clear-eyed understanding is essential” in helping fight this new wave of “transient terrorism.”

(cont.)

Congressman Shimkus of Illinois (pictured fourth) noted that the word “avatar is a Hindu or Buddhist name for God” which he said has always caused him some concern, while Congresswoman Eshoo of California (pictured fifth) was excited about the transformative nature of virtual worlds and their potential to tap the human desire to socially interact.

In addition to his deep concern for the well-being of children in virtual worlds, Congressman Stupak of Michigan raised an interesting concern in his opening statement regarding the potential for psychological addiction to virtual worlds.

After Congressman Green of Texas promoted the business and political utilities of virtual worlds, Congressman Doyle of Pennsylvania said that it informed the net neutrality debate, arguing that instead of limiting bandwidth, net neutrality positions should instead aid the building of infrastructure that harbors such positive non-profit access and entrepreneurial spirit.

The first witness to speak was Second Life founder and long-time CEO (though he is due to relinquish the role once a suitable replacement is found) of Linden Labs, Philip Rosedale (pictured first). Rosedale gave an brief overview of virtual worlds complete with a machinimatic video presentation and continued to explain what he noted as the vast commercial, scientific, and social potential that lies in virtual spaces. On behalf of Linden Labs, he said that they believe “virtual worlds hold great promise for America” as a multi-tiered communications platform with low barriers to entry and the ability for collaboration over long distances. They’re “poised to do what the telephone, email, and internet all did” by exponentially increasing personal productivity. Virtual worlds are economically “vital to America’s growth” in opportunities related to business, and thus, the U.S. “should continue the technological leadership” to make Second Life and other virtual worlds ubiquitously accessible.

Following Rosedale, Susan Tenby, Online Community Manager of TechSoup.org, Dr. Colin Colin J. Parris, Vice President of Digital Convergence IBM Research and Larry Johnson, CEO of The New Media Consortium all echoed many of the same sentiments.

Tenby and Johnson spoke to the far-reaching non-profit and educational activities current and possible in Second Life, while Dr. Parris explained how IBM as a company extracts business value through the use of Second Life, noting examples that included virtual job training, team collaboration, simulation-based instruction, marketing and pre-sales activities, as well as improved customer relations and satisfaction.

A bevy of interesting questions were raised by the delegates during the ensuing Q&A session. In addition to some playful discussion covering where the name Linden Labs stemmed from (the street on which the company was first located), whether any presidential candidates are utilizing Second Life (not to Rosedale’s knowlege) and a back-and-forth on virtual versus real life identities, most of the questions posed were related to the security risks inherent in virtual worlds.

When asked to comment on the rights and protection of consumers in virtual economies, Rosedale responded that virtual world activities and transactions are in fact much more easily monitored than those in the real world and that it is relatively easy to spot fishy transactions due to the microtransaction environment. Speaking to Second Life policy, Linden Labs manually checks every transaction over $10 US. Rosedale believes it is a model for legitimate transactionas as they have maintained a fraud rate on billing systems over the past few months at 0.2%, whereas the industry standard rests at about 1%.

Many of the same arguments were made by Rosedale in response to a question by Congresswoman Harman on the potential for “Virtual Jihad” and what the U.S. can do to “make certain that these glorious tools are not abused or changed into tools used to commit terrorism.” Rosedale explained that due to Second Life’s tried-and-true processes for extracting money and recording of activities, account records are easily tracked down and much more easily policed than on average websites.

Johnson added to this point by saying that the one thing he has come away with is a tremendous sense of how much virtual world users regard their community and that the strongest asset of defense is this dedicated user base. In his experience, community members are not shy about sharing what they have witnessed if improper acts have occurred – unlike in RL.

Regarding the security of minors in Second Life’s teen-exclusive virtual space and the potential for predators, Rosedale responded that Linden Labs screens as extensively as they can, taking child protection very seriously. Due mostly to in-world self-policing and initial identification requirements, they have never identified any behavior that has warranted stricter policing, nor have they collaborated with government security officials to this end, said Rosedale. However, in the adult spaces they have worked closely with the FBI regarding potential cybercrimes, etc.

Responding to the question of whether a user “could be logged onto virtual worlds for too many hours a day?” by Congressman Stupak, Johnson responded that such is a legitimate concern discussed frequently by educators that spans the entire video game market as well. However, in his experience, Johnson has never seen reason to be alarmed. Rosedale remarked that this issue is more complex than one may think and depends largely upon what activities the user is engaging in. If a child is gaining real-world experience from setting up a lemonade-stand equivalent venture in a virtual world, this is much different from just playing or shooting monsters, as one would in a video game. Therefore, he believes this debate deserves sensitivity to the type of interaction users are having, and noted that Linden Labs poses no restrictions on what users do or how much time they spend in Second Life.

A bit of heated commentary surfaced on behalf of Senator Shimkus (who called himself a “pro-market competitive republican” and a “Christian fundamentalist”) seemingly in response to Rosedale’s remarks on the positive correlation between pervasive broadband access and the use of virtual worlds, using Japan as an example of such a positive, wired environment. The Congressman strongly defended U.S. internet connectivity rates with statistics such as the U.S. representing 1/3 of worldwide broadband users, although he presented no statistics regarding the total percentage of U.S. citizens who have access to broadband and relied on solely numerical scores. He also asked Rosedale to speak to the use of Second Life by religious groups and pro-democracy advocates, to which Rosedale responded that both groups were present and very active. Lastly, Congressman Shimkus also asked Rosedale why he was barring access to the live feed of the Congressional hearing and to agree that sometimes certain amounts of “network management is necessary in certain services.” Rosedale politely agreed with the Congressman, but explained that the limited access to the viewing of the Congressional hearing was solely due to pragmatic, space-related issues.

To view the full-length, archived hearing, click here.

Comment Thread (1 Response)

  1. Sweet. Thanks for the summary. It’s much more digestible than watching the full proceedings.

    Posted by: FutureFly   April 03, 2008
    Vote for this comment - Recommend

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