Linden Lab Follows Six Apart Down Censorship Path

Over the past few days the Live Journal community was in an uproar over Six Apart’s move to delete what they considered objectionable material. I first read about it on Boing Boing (Link), then on Mashable (Link), and then on numerous sites. C|Net carried the news (Link) and one look at the comments should provide some sense of just how upset LJ users were; I rarely see that many comments on any C|Net story.

The backlash wasn’t just swift, it was also sufficiently motivating to elicit an apology from Six Apart’s CEO, Barak Berkowitz (Link) and an ongoing evaluation/restoration of previously deleted journals.

In the meantime, Linden Lab has been going through similar difficulties stemming from stories surrounding the investigation of a German news organization into reports of adults pretending to be virtual children inside Second Life and sometimes engaging in simulated sexual activities. Linden Lab had previously maintained a widely-understood “hands-off” policy regarding such benign adult virtual activity, but laws against “virtual child pornography” are apparently more strict in Germany than in the U.S., and Linden Lab is reported to have expansion plans for Europe.

Similar to the “Warriors for Innocence” types who contributed to the initial clampdown on Live Journal, a seemingly small but extremely vocal group of Second Life residents has been taking this opportunity to push Linden Lab to clamp down on what they consider objectionable material. Apparently it’s worked, because earlier this evening Linden Lab started down the same road as Six Apart by indicating they’d be more forcefully restricting user behavior (Link); and not just of the kind most residents had been debating, but a much broader range including “graphic violence” of the sort seen in many videogames.

However, one look at the comments on the “official” Linden Lab blog certainly casts doubt on their assertion that the actions are being taken as a result of “community” input. The truth is, there is no “community” in Second Life; it’s a collection of groups and individuals, most of whom are oblivious to Linden Lab’s policies and announcements.

Taken in combination with Linden Lab’s actions in the wake of the German news report (reversing their earlier position and banning accounts without notice), some residents are wondering when other freedoms allowed in the United States will be taken away as a result of some other nation’s laws, especially when that nation accounts for a significant percentage of the Second Life population as Germany does. When countries like China start becoming too important to ignore, will Linden Lab do what Yahoo and others have done before them – hand over names to government officials?

Between this and some other bad news earlier today (Link), it’s not looking good for Linden Lab. The dream of Second Life becoming the “future internet” is fading fast for those who believed. I’m glad I wasn’t one of them.

8 thoughts on “Linden Lab Follows Six Apart Down Censorship Path

  1. I was one of the protesters that made my voice heard in Livejournal’s news section over and over again. It seems like issues of censorship are coming to the fore everywhere on the internet. What made LJ’s stance unbearable was the fact that they were catering to a bunch of white supremacist nutters. These people had games on their websites called ‘Shoot the Wetback’. I kid you not. If LJ is bowing to the demands of these kind of people, there is something very wrong. I never believed in LL, I thought they were trying to supress people’s opinions already by phasing out the forums. But I did believe that Livejournal wouldn’t cave. I can understand why they did it. I am just displeased by how they went about doing it without even looking at the content of the LJ’s they deleted to see if they had illegal material on them. Let the Disney-fication of the Internet begin. *sigh*

  2. I’m with you. And it’s not like I don’t understand the difficult situation Linden Lab is in. But after reading stuff like this piece from Information Week (Link), I can’t help but wonder if they have their act together:

    Does that extend to authoritarian regimes, I wondered. Second Life is an international service, with more than half of its users outside the United States. Would Linden Lab cooperate with an official directive from, for example, China, ordering the company to turn over information on residents who’d used Second Life for dissident action?

    It’s a decision Linden Lab will inevitably face if it achieves the kind of global penetration that it hopes to get.

    Faced with the same decision, Yahoo decided to cooperate with China. U.S. lawmakers took Google, Yahoo, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft to task last year for complicity in aiding Chinese repression.

    I asked what Linden Lab would do in that situation, and Rosedale thought about the question for a long time.

    Honestly, I don’t have an answer to that,” he said.

    Rosedale doesn’t have an answer for whether or not he’d hand someone over for, say, making fun of a country’s ruler (which is why YouTube keeps getting blocked in places like Thailand)?

    Imagine making fun of the Thai king inside Second Life (a real life crime), having your identity revealed to the Thai authorities and winding up in prison for 7.5 – 75 years, which is what the punishment is. And Linden Lab decides; with their decision likely influenced not by some sense of morality but by their business expansion plans.

    That’s hardly how I believe the 3D internet will evolve.

  3. SL is just going to offer one channel in a 3D internet. I’m not sure a (now profitable) corporation is congenitally able to do what needs to be done to become the defacto standard, namely, open source everything. I think full open sourcing would require that SL fail to become a viable business, a la Netscape.

    It was easy for LL to talk about open sourcing the server code when they weren’t turning a monthly profit. Now that they are, I’m sure there is significant pressure from some investors to rethink that strategy.

    As for censorship by LL, that’s a really badly written post on their blog. I have no idea how to interpret it, especially in light of their soon to be implemented policy to flag adult content. I’m beginning to suspect the vagary with respect to what constitutes acceptable content is a feature and not a bug. The policy may itself be vaporware designed to scare off the worst offenders and keep borderline SL users looking over their shoulder.

  4. Though I’ve previously posted on the official Linden blog and was relatively early to the scene, for some reason my comment there was censored. Included in my very polite response was one word that probably didn’t go over well: Croquet.

    Now more than ever it’s apparent to me that it’s the most likely path to a 3D internet {which reminds me that I need to go re-read a post I saw yesterday regarding it and Google Gears}.

    btw, here’s a thought: Sound/voice censorship. There’s a case going on right now involving a blind man buying “pornographic” sound clips on the internet.

    Second Life is, as everyone knows by now, getting voice.

    I’d say there’s still more room for expressive suppression – real or implied.

  5. I just find it quite comic that LL – which can’t cope with the volume of existing ARs as it is – is trying to pretend that it would be able to prevent not just illegal content but also legal-but-unpleasant stuff, with the only resident allies being prurient and/or score-settling content-ARers, who will make sure that they end up with a million times as many legally-problematic cases than they otherwise would have.

    It may be all a big pre-emptive show but it will fall apart the moment some journalist actually _tries_ to find filth. Instead of this nonsense they should be preparing a case that they are not Club Penguin, do not have a stated responsibility to censor content to “protect” anyone and, yes, sometimes adults will do things which may seem repulsive but are perfectly legal. Every announcement like this makes common carrier status harder for them to claim and it is only that which will save them in the end (unless they lock down content creation which basically means bye-bye grid).

  6. Pingback: Raph’s Website » The boundaries of user created content

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