Malicious Viewer detection systems

There has been what can only be described as an ongoing war of words enacted over on the official flogs relating to the use of “Viewer detection systems”. This fight has been focused on the Gemini CDS (Copybot Detection System) and it has people hotly divided for the most part: those who are “pro” the system, those who are “anti”, with a lot of name-calling and aspersion-casting going on between the two.

Essentially, Gemini CDS offers people protection from “copybotting Viewers” by detecting them when an avatar using such a Viewer tp’s into range. It can then either alert the land owner to the individual’s presence or it can boot / ban them – and add their details to a blacklist shared among all versions of the system that have been deployed in-world (i.e. there is a back-end database external to SL supporting the system). Further, the ban remains in place, even if the alleged violator subsequently tries to access a protected sim / area using a “legal” Viewer. To support the network ban list, purchasers of the system pay L$700 a month over and above the initial purchase price of the system.

The system apparently works by using the media streaming capability built-in to the Viewer to identify known “copybot” Viewers and thus take action against them (assuming, I gather, the user has media streaming enabled on the Viewer). There has also been a lot of hype surrounding the ability of this system to somehow automatically ban alts of those found to be using “copybotting” Viewers at the same time as the initial ban is handed out – leading to (unfounded) claims that the tool illegally scans the local computer.

Leaving aside these wilder (and pretty much unfounded) claims of data scraping, Gemini CDS would appear to offer a degree of protection against content ripping. However, having toiled through the seemingly endless flog threads on the subject as well as bouncing around other SL-related forums (where the debates surrounding Gemini CDS are as prevalent), I have serious concerns as to the effectiveness of the system, and something of a niggle relating to its validity.

For a start, the system appears to have been largely deployed by store owners, who give it the loudest praise in the flog. BUT – the vast majority of stores use vendor systems (with some notable exceptions in the furniture and housing markets) – and goods contained in vendors cannot be ripped. Ergo, aside from those who are utterly naive when it comes to content ripping, it is highly unlikely “serious” rippers are going to be plonking themselves down in the middle of stores.

Even the effectiveness of the system cannot be examined; while store keepers may point to the “fact” that Gemini CDS has ejected X people from their store / sim in any given week – this does not automatically equate to said individuals being genuine content rippers nor does it mean content ripping is in any way being deterred (again, because it is unlikely serial content ripping is taking place in stores).

Then there is the question as to exactly how endemic content ripping really is. The flog shows the level of fear / paranoia circulating on the subject, with ugly fighting erupting among content creators themselves. Within the flogs themselves, some store owners openly admit to ejecting people who stand around in their stores for more than a couple of minutes without moving, because they “know” these people are ripping their content (again, unless the content is on open display – such as being modelled – it’s hard to see how this can be the case).

As such, it is hard to accurately assess the spread of content ripping through the use of malicious Viewers simply because of all the FUD that surrounds them; and this being the case, it is fair to ask whether tools such as Gemini CDS actually feed into this FUD, simultaneously feeding on people’s fears while creating a veneer of comfort and sense of protection – while all the time generating a revenue stream for the creators of the system.

One might argue that profit or not, the fact that Gemini CDS gives the perception of being protected against thieves, then it is sufficient deterrent – and I am, after all, one who is pretty big on seeing perception as a motivator, as my comments around third-party Viewers will demonstrate.

But really, the answer to this must be “no”. Deterrence only works when it is shown to deter (prevent / discourage). When one strips away all the hype, arguments, hyperbole and misinformation circulating around Gemini CDS one is driven to a single conclusion: it will have absolutely minimal impact on “serious” content ripping. While store keeper may well feel comforted by seeing this system boot 5 or 6 people a week from their sim and even consider that in doing so, it is enabling them to “do their bit” to stamp out content ripping – the very sad fact remains that ripping will continue unabated elsewhere on the grid  – and probably at levels that have remained more-or-less unchanged for the last several years.

The there is the annoying niggle over the validity of the system. Gemini CDS is owned an operated by individuals outside of Linden Lab. They have no “official” position within Second Life and no sanctioned authority. They maintain the Gemini CDS system under a blanket of secrecy that goes far beyond the need to protect (as they put it) “trade secrets”. There is no oversight as to which Viewer is or is not branded a “copybot”, there is no oversight of their ban list and there is no guaranteedmeans of appeal should someone feel they have been wrongly banned. Indeed, as Mitzy Shino has already found out, the owners of the system are predisposed not to accept appeals and lift bans.

I won’t go so far as to claim Gemini CDS is insidious or a waste of time per se. While the system has been developed by individuals with a questionable past, others have managed to test it to the point where it is not doing anything overtly insidious – my only caveat being that we only have the creators’ word that it is only collecting data related to the use of “copybot” Viewers (although as I use Emerald, I’m in a bit of a cleft stick in this regard). Further, that it does give store owner a naive sense of security – which they are entitled to, having paid for the system itself and continue to do so on a monthly basis in order to retain their sense of comfort – then I’ll grant that is has done some good for them.

But I’d draw the line far short of Gemini CDS being the kind of panacea for content ripping many portray it to be believe. In the wider scheme of things, the best one could say about Gemini CDS is that it is a placebo – :quit! (for those familiar with Copybot “destectors”).

New ToS released

M Linden has announced the release of a new SL Terms of Service (ToS), that will come into effect from the 30th April 2010.

The timing is interesting, as it coincides with the Third Party Viewer (TPV) Policy going into effect, and it is interesting to note that M’s post also refers to all the policies relating to the ToS as being “new” (i.e. updated).

As to the ToS itself, the language has evidently been cleaned up with a view to making it somewhat more comprehensible – even if the document is much longer than the older ToS.

However, longer does not automatically mean better.

Overall, the ToS appears to encompass something of a paradigm shift that has been hinted at in various blog postings from LL for a while now: that they no long consider themselves a platform provider, but rather a service provider, licensing aspects of their service for use, ostensibly as the user requires them.

Some elements of this move appear to be “good” – on the land front, for example, we finally move away from the absurd and highly misleading notion that “land” in Second Life is “owned”. In the past, this has given rise to all sorts of misconceptions and ranting within the official flogs.  The new ToS makes it clear that the acquisition of “virtual land” and the fees relating to the same are now effectively a licence to use LL’s server space and fees relating to the use of that space.

That said…this blatant move it liable to cause massive upsets: Linden Lab have long promoted the concept of “ownership” within Second Life – while the ToS has tended to make it clear users don’t actually “own” anything beyond IP rights to their own creations. As such, the ToS was found to be coercive during one famous case. While times have changed, one can well see the move to “licensing” land to be a causing of much potential upset in some quarters.

Similarly, the new approach is liable to cause much gnashing of teeth where Linden dollars are concerned, inasmuch as any fiscal value associated with them has now been almost completely stripped away up until they are actual converted to “real” currency and withdrawn. One cannot help this a) has been done to reduce the prospect of litigation following future account terminations; and b) will vastly reduce the funds people are willing to hold in their accounts.

These implications are potentially bad enough; then things get worse. Section 7, dealing with content, is perhaps the most confusing aspect of the new ToS, in that it appears to have been written around the God-awful “Second Life as the web” paradigm many at LL seem so in love with (and which is in keeping with their shift in now regarding themselves as a service provider along the lines of an ISP). As such, licences, rights, etc., are all talked about in terms of “uploading”, “publishing”, “submitting” and so forth, vis: You retain any and all Intellectual Property Rights you already hold under   applicable law in Content you upload, publish, and submit to or through the Servers, Websites, and other areas of the Service, subject to the rights,   licenses, and other terms of this Agreement, including any underlying rights   of other users or Linden Lab in Content that you may use or modify [my emphasis].

But what of content created in-world? The ToS implies that content created in-world (prim linksets, LSL scripts written in-world, etc.), fall outside of this section and thus are by default the property of Linden Lab. Even Section 7.6, relating to IP rights limit’s the user’s ownership of such rights to content you upload, publish or submit to the Service.

If this is the case, then it is worrying on several levels – both for users and potentially for Linden Lab.

Elsewhere, the new ToS introduces the TPV Policy in what is again bound to cause outrage. As I’ve mentioned previously (and more than once), the TPV is flawed in that the TPV confuses the use of third-party Viewers with the development of said Viewers. This has already given rise (rightly or wrongly) to outpourings of scorn and hurt from third-party Viewer developers  – and it now looks set to do the same with users of such Viewers. One can – to a point – see why the two have been mixed: TPV code is open-source and thus moddable – not only by the original developers, but by users why are so inclined.

Even so, it would have been far better had LL restricted the TPV policy itself to developers and the development of TPVs, and included a short, unambiguous section on users’ responsibilities in the use of TPVs within the body of the ToS. This would have scored two quick wins: i) it would have enabled LL to simply specify what users cannot do to existing TPVs without getting confusingly embroiled in deeper development issues; ii) it would enable developers to more clearly state their own EULA to ensure they both remain within the confines of the TPV Policy and limit their liabilities in the face of those determined to hack their code for malicious ends.

It’s also hard to fathom the policy around snapshots and machinima. Promoted by LL as an “aid” to such work, the entire policy looks set to achieve exactly the reverse. People are already trigger-happy with the AR option when it comes to “copybotting”; one dreads to thing what will happen when folks start innocently taking snapshots of one another as they hope around places that interest them and others start getting objectionable…..

The biggest problem with the new ToS is that while it is cohesive pretty much of itself, some contradictions are apparent – most notably between the ToS and the supporting policies. The ToS also absolves Linden Lab of virtually any and all liabilities – even in the case of them either turning off SL with no warning, or simply being so grossly negligent that they completely break the platform; at the same time, it enforces liabilities upon user even after they cease using the service. Hard to see either of these surviving a court case intact.

One can no longer doubt that the times are a-changin’ – but the question really remains as to how much this new ToS will really affect the overall use of SL. On the one hand, I can see elements giving problems, as mentioned above vis photos / machinima and possibly the use of third-party Viewers (possibly because the majority of “new” users will be driven down the Viewer 2.0 route), but I honestly suspect that – as with past upheavals in SL, life will go on more-or-less with an air of “business as usual” as the dust surrounding the new ToS settles. At least until the first lawsuit pops up.

Unless, of course, LL themselves see fit to rock the boat to the point of capsizing it themselves.