Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/05/13/nudevatars/

Could Sadville break the internet with nakedness?

Look out - it's the virtual moral majority

By Jane Fae Ozimek

Posted in Broadband, 13th May 2009 11:32 GMT

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.

Anyone wishing to access adult content in Second Life will, in future, have to abide by the network host’s rules. This is not the case with the internet as a whole, which is built around the principle of a dumb network (whose job is mostly to deliver data packets to the end-user) and smart terminals.

Function resides mostly at the user end of the equation, making censorship that much more difficult.

Second Life, however, is a smart network. In addition to the function, provided by the underlying software, it is underpinned by an asset system - a unified backend database that provides presence and many database services, such as parcel mapping, groups and inventory – which remains wholly under the control of Linden Labs.

Experiments are now underway to create interconnectivity between virtual worlds. The key body in this respect is the Architecture Working Group, whose mission is to develop the protocols that will open up the Second Life Grid from something operated solely by Linden Labs to where others can run parts of the grid.

Last year, for the first time, it became possible to "teleport" an individual avatar from Second Life into IBM’s dedicated virtual world: embarrassingly, neither personal inventory nor clothes will yet transfer with them. Still, it can only be a matter of time before a non-naked clump of pixels crosses the barrier.

When that happens, expect a major boost to those providers wishing us all to make use of virtuality. As Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life, points out: one major difference in a virtual world is the ability to organise spatially and breaking free from the langauge-specific chains of text.

There will, however, be a price to pay. Control of a virtual web, if it follows the present model, will be far more with providers than it is now. At its most extreme, if government decreed that a particular opinion could not be expressed within the confines of a virtual web, it would find it far easier to get its own way than it does now.

If Second Life is just a game, we have little to worry about. If it is something more – and the investment being poured in by players such as IBM suggests it may be – perhaps it is time we all sat up and took notice. ®