Kids in Second Life: Does Danger Lurk?
May 8, 2008 4:00 AM PT
Second Life is no place for kids, a Republican congressman declared Monday.
U.S. Representative Mark Kirk (R.-Ill.) has sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requesting a consumer alert warning about the dangers of Second Life, which he charges could expose kids to child predators and registered sex offenders.
"Sites like Second Life offer no protections to keep kids from virtual 'rape rooms,' brothels and drug stores," Kirk said. "If sites like Second Life won't protect kids from obviously inappropriate content, the Congress will."
Kirk also touted the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA), legislation that requires schools to prevent children from accessing social networking Web sites and chat rooms like MySpace unless they are doing so for a legitimate educational purpose and are under adult supervision.
It also requires public libraries to prevent children from accessing these Web sites unless they have the permission of a parent.
Originally introduced by Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), DOPA passed in the House in 2006 but failed in the Senate.
Not Enough Protection
Second Life creator Linden Lab does not do enough to protect children from sexual predators and inappropriate content on the site, Kirk asserted.
While Second Life "claims to prevent children under the age of 13 from accessing the site, there are no age verification features built into the registration process," he said. Further, its own lawyers admit that the site's "teen area" may have adults prowling, he asserted, as well as that the adult area may have children present.
"Outside of the preapproved 'teen area' are countless locations where users engage in virtual prostitution, drug use and other wholly inappropriate activities," Kirk charged. "Drug dealers and predators routinely attempt to contact users in the real world once a meeting happens in Second Life."
'Minors Are Not Permitted'
Linden Lab, for its part, argues that it "actively monitors" against underage use. The site currently employs an age verification process on a voluntary basis.
"Second Life is a 3-D virtual world inhabited by Residents, all of whom must confirm they are over 18 on registration, and many of whom have submitted verified payment information," Linden Lab said. "Minors are not permitted in Second Life."
Linden Lab has a separate grid for minors aged 13 to 17, called "Teen Second Life," the company added; that portion "is carefully monitored and used by many schools and educators," it asserted.
An Impossible Task
Members of the Second Life community, meanwhile, "including Linden Lab staff, actively monitor against minors accessing the service," the company went on. "Suspected minors must provide proof of age, and if this is not provided, they are blocked from the adult Second Life grid and directed to Teen Second Life."
The "sheer volume" of activity on the site and "the ephemeral nature of the creative content" prevent Linden Lab from policing all in-world activities at any given moment, the company added. "However, while Linden Lab itself does not create most of the content within Second Life -- which is designed by its Residents -- we do work hard to ensure that our Residents' experience is enjoyable, safe and legal.
"We certainly do not condone the provision of violent or sexual images to children, and we look forward to being part of the current, active dialogue regarding protecting children and educating parents about online safety," Linden Lab added.
'Age Play' Controversy
There has already been considerable controversy over what's known as "age play" -- or posing as a juvenile -- in Second Life, Kevin Alderman, founder of Eros, an erotic products business in the virtual world, told LinuxInsider.
"We actually have been stalwart proponents for Linden Lab's intervention into age play in Second Life," said Alderman, who is known as "Stroker Serpentine" on the site. "Long before it became an issue, we saw these people coming in and role-playing children."
There were even sims in the virtual world in which residents could solicit escorts as child avatars, he noted.
After much outcry by the Second Life community, Linden Lab came out with a policy against age play, Alderman added. "The community as a whole does not tolerate it."
The prevalent sexuality on the Internet in general should be concerning for any parent, Alderman said.
"Being a parent myself, I'm concerned about what my kids are exposed to," he explained. "But I'd be a pretty lousy parent if I'd allow them to sit unfettered in front of a computer all day long. Just as we're active in their education and academic progress, we have to be active in their online progress too."
DOPA 'Is Not the Answer'
Second Life has "very good professional security people" on its team, and "they're responsible corporate partners," Parry Aftab, cyber-crime lawyer and executive director of WiredSafety.org, told LinuxInsider. "But they have a lot of users and technologies and ways that people can use the technology and commit crimes -- they are a virtual world that contains all of the risks of the real world."
Reviving DOPA, however, "is not the answer," she said. Aftab testified "along with many others" against the legislation before Congress shortly after it was originally proposed.
Instead, a better approach would be to let a new task force that was recently formed do its work, Aftab said.
Expert Task Force
That task force -- of which Aftab is a member, along with Linden Lab, MySpace, Google, Yahoo and many others -- was formed earlier this year as part of an agreement between MySpace and 49 attorneys general, she noted, "to look for solutions to keeping kids safer using social networking technology," she explained.
"This group was pulled together to bring together the leading experts of the field," Aftab explained. "Now that all of us have agreed to donate a year of our time, we need a chance to find a solution."