Earlier this week I had the pleasure to speak with two attorneys with the Federal Trade Commission who are engaged in a report on virtual worlds to Congress, due this December. The researchers are tasked with looking at the environment virtual worlds present to children and, specifically, the access they present to explicit content and measures taken to prevent that access.
The report was prompted by the FTC appropriations bill passed by Congress in March 2009, which noted, in part, that „[c]oncerns have been raised regarding reports of explicit content that can be easily accessed by minors on increasingly popular virtual reality web programs.”
The bill went on to dictate that „the FTC shall submit a report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations discussing the types of content on virtual reality sites and what steps, if any, these sites take to prevent minors from accessing content.”
The FTC has since begun prepping its study of virtual worlds with plans to report to Congress later this year.
We’ve seen some fear-mongering from government officials before, most particularly when Representative Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) called out Linden Lab for letting children access rape rooms in Second Life and pushing for a ban of the virtual world in schools and libraries. Of course he didn’t point to specific evidence of children accessing adult content in the virtual world, but Linden has recently made a strong effort to separate adult-oriented content and activities from the rest of its population.
That push was noted by the researchers, who, I’m happy to say, seem much more open-minded and cautious in their approach than Representative Kirk. They’re on a fact-finding mission, not a witch hunt. They told me they wouldn’t necessarily be pushing for a law enforcement hike, just making general recommendations.
Still, Congress is worried that virtual worlds that set a minimum age of 13 (for COPPA purposes) or 18 (to keep out all minors) don’t adequately screen out younger users. And, of course, they’re often right. Linden is moving to require age verification for adult content, but usually all it takes to access an adult or teen world is supply a date of birth that meets the requirements and, maybe, a parental email address.
Obviously, that’s not 100% effective for any site, whether that be a virtual world, social network, or straight up adult content like pornography or violent videos.
I’m not sure how that will play into the final report or actions that the government may choose to take. Virtual worlds are meeting the requirements set out for general online properties. It’s just that those requirements are also generally ineffective at baffling anyone older or less dedicated than the most casual 6-year-old user.
However, I explained that while Second Life has been the media darling (and punching bag) for the last few years, it’s far from the most populous virtual world–and likely less appealing to younger users who are confronted with options aimed at them and (for tweens) their older siblings like Habbo, Gaia Online, Meez, WeeWorld, IMVU, etc., etc., etc. And while there’s certainly the possibility of adult or explicit content in those worlds, it’s limited by both moderation and technical freedom afforded to users.
My ultimate argument was that you’re more likely to see a 12-year-old sneaking into a teen world than a teen sneaking into an adult world like Second Life. And then they’re more likely to be confronted by cyber-bullies or adult predators (and even that’s not been shown to be incredibly likely) than graphic depictions of sex or violence, especially compared to the broader Web. In other words, they’re more likely to encounter a cartoonish version of a skimpily attired avatar with a bit more sex appeal than Charlie Brown in his underwear and some censored (usually) flirting in a virtual world than the hardcore material they can get anywhere else.
That’s not to say there aren’t legitimate concerns and that more companies should follow Linden’s example and take proactive measures, but I think I’m right that the danger of virtual worlds is minimal compared to other online properties.
But as I explained to the researchers, I’m more of an outside observer than an industry roleplayer. So what do you all think?