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Look out - it's the virtual moral majority

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Comment Second Life's introduction of adult zoning and age verification highlights an uncomfortable truth about the future of the web - as network function increases, so the anarchic free-for-all we are used to will be eroded further, and possibly abolished forever.

There is much frothing on Sadville forums over Linden Labs’ proposals to tackle the issue of "adult" areas. The virtual world that appears on visitor screens is made up from a collection of "regions" (also known as sims), each notionally 256m x 256m, fitted together into a "grid".

A user's avatar is located in exactly one region at any given time. Each normal region corresponds to a single CPU in the Second Life network, with tens of thousands of CPUs, deployed across multiple locations. When an individual moves from region to region, their avatar's data representation also moves from one processor to another.

Regions are further broken up into parcels – a little like subdivisions on a real world lot - and many regions are grouped together to create "continents". According to Linden Labs, areas containing genuinely "adult" content make up between two and four per cent of the grid.

However, a haphazard evolution of the grid has left some sims or parcels with truly "adult" content located a stone’s throw – or a camera pan – away from more "respectable" enterprises. A spokesman cited educators using Second Life for training. "Even if an entire class is over 18," he said, "you don't necessarily want to be confronted with adult content while you're trying to teach someone about the internal workings of the pancreas".

Critics have claimed that this is about freedom of speech. Linden sees it as more like real world zoning - when big business spends a small fortune on smart new offices, they do not want their visitors forced to walk past a grubby sex shop on their way in.

Re-zoning "adult" establishments on to a separate continent – called Ursula – is Linden Labs’ preferred solution, believing that in the long run, this will be good for the businesses that go there.

Slightly more controversial has been the way in which they are proposing to implement this solution. First is the question of how they will categorise areas and content as "adult": naughty words? Naked breasts? The presence of obscene poseballs?

One of the main methods, according to Linden Labs, will be the first of these. They are developing software to assess regional content on the basis of word search, and sims will find themselves relocated to the adult world. They are aware of some of the difficulties inherent in this approach. "Cock" is a word that tends to provoke filters set to US English, as this word has a predominantly crude association, and "rooster" is the preferred term when discussing poultry.

Such automated classification is likely to throw up many false positives. Linden is aware of this and working on it.

The second issue is an enhanced age checking requirement for anyone now wishing to visit Ursula. Ordinary members of Second Life argue that the project is already only meant to be accessed by those aged 18-plus – so why should additional checking be needed? Linden responds that the added requirement is not onerous, and no additional data is stored.

The real issue emerges as it becomes clear that in this one move, Linden is cutting through what has been the subject of years of argument on the web – and creating what is in effect a .xxx domain.

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