Google’s bosses want G+ to “replicate real life”

As Botgirl Questi reports, the reason things have been so topsy-turvy on Google+ (some pseudonymous accounts being suspended then being reinstated; others being suspended and remaining so, others apparently being removed), appears to have gained some clarification.

It appears, to precis, that Google wants G+ to mimic how “ordinary people” interact in the real world.


So innovation has now become a matter of mimicking, rather than enhancing or actually, well, being innovative. Givem all the possible options Google could opt to take when looking at building a genuinely innovative, progressive and encompassing social platform, the one that claim to have opted for seems to be little more than a wimp-out.

Obviously, there are clear reasons for this – as Tateru Nino commented the other day – in relation to capturing those who have been engaged in Facebook. This is also the possibility that Google’s conservative approach is because most people are, well, conservative, when it comes to making friends in RL. But in taking this approach, the fact is that Google is hardly likely to set the world alight – and they may actually be aware of this, hence the current flip-flopping over the matter of pseudonymity we’re currently seeing in terms of some accounts being reinstated as the beta progresses.

Even so, one cannot help but think that in taking up this stance, Google are potentially leaving a very large opportunity open for someone else to take-up.

Botgirl Questi closes her post with a quote from Marshall McLuhan regarding looking back at the future. I’d like to add my own to it, this one from Jim Steinman and made famous by one Marvin Lee Aday. It may not be as illustrious as the quote from McLuhan, but it still tends to sum Google’s position up:

Objects in the rear-view mirror may appear closer than they are.

The Privacy Zone

It is now some 20 days since the RedZone farrago came to an “end”. While that tool has now gone from Second Life, the wider issue of people’s right to a reasonable expectation of privacy while using the platform remains wide open – and Linden Lab remains resolutely silent on the matter.

Some might argue that the reason RedZone was removed isn’t important; it’s simply enough that it was eventually taken down. But the fact is, we do need to know why it went; was it finally considered to be in violation of the Terms of Service (ToS), or was it simply that the signal noise from the community reached a pitch where removing the device was viewed as the most expedient means of getting everyone to quieten down?

Beyond this is the fact that RedZone was not the only system grabbing information; some have been removed, others haven’t. Gemini CDS is still in use, for example; whether it is capable of account matching or not is irrelevant – it is sending information to a database under the control of a private individual outside of SL. Together with LL’s relatively low-key toughening of the Community Standards, it sends the message that the non-consensual havesting of user data – including that which might be regarded as “private” – for whatever purpose, is perfectly OK.

“Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite” – Marlon Brando

While it is true that some link real life to Second Life as a natural part of their work, hobby or whatever, the vast majority are involved in SL as a means of stepping back from the realities of life and indulging themselves – and anonymity is important to this ability to do so. This point seems to be lost on the likes of Hamlet Au, with their constant (and completely inaccurate) cry that it is avatar anonymity that is “holding back” Second Life.

Even where people do link real life information with a Second Life account for business or other professional reasons, they may also wish to use alternative accounts to explore opportunities, activities and lifestyles that might cause them untold embarrassment if known to peers, family or friends. As such, there needs to be firm Chinese Walls between the accounts they create, and an assurance from Linden Lab that it is doing all it can to maintain those walls.

In short, any linking of real life to Second Life should always remain a matter of choice for the user, and never something thrust upon them by Linden Lab – and it should never be a matter of covert linking carried out without any form of explicit formal consent.

“The first duty of government is to protect the citizen from assault. Unless it does this, all the civil rights and civil liberties in the world aren’t worth a dime.” – Richard A. Viguerie

Linden Lab’s response to RedZone has been weak. There has been no public clarification of what will and will not be tolerated in terms of data harvesting within Second Life. While section 4 of the Community Standards now includes a reference to the sharing of avatar account information, it misses the point entirely – possibly deliberately so.

Attempting to regulate the sharing of data is about as effective as shutting the stable door when the horse has not only bolted, but is sitting on an exotic beach somewhere enjoying a quiet cocktail in the sun. Once data has been successfully culled from Second Life, then there is no way Linden Lab can prevent it from being howsoever those gathering it desire; and as RedZone ably demonstrated, when it comes to private individuals gather said data, it can never be assumed they are doing so with any honourable intent. Ergo, the issue is the gathering of such information in the first place that must be addressed.

Of course there are times when some information needs to be made available elsewhere – as the Linden Lab privacy Policy explains, certain services require data to be passed elsewhere in order for users to benefit from those services. There are even arguments to be made for LL pushing things like Profiles out to the web not only to ease server loads elsewhere, but to enable them to draw on possible advertising revenues through the use of the space on Profile pages. This is all understood and accepted.

What is not acceptable, however, is allowing people to attempt to drill through the existing Chinese Walls simply because it can be done (due to weaknesses in the Viewer software), or as a result of some unsustainable excuse (“the existing security tools aren’t good enough” – a weak excuse used when in fact someone is unwilling to take the time to use said tools properly, as this would inconvenience them far too much).

“I believe in a zone of privacy” – Hillary Clinton

A zone of privacy must exist for users of Second Life in order for us all feel confident that activating one aspect or another of the Viewer’s features is not going to end up in something unpleasant happening – or that we are being spied upon or possibly stalked.

While it is fair to say that no-one expects anything to happen overnight, the fact remains that time is passing – time in which Linden Lab have had the opportunity to do more to reassure the user community that they are in fact working to give each and every one of us a reasonable expectation of privacy. And yet, as it stands:

  • The Media Filter is still not available in Viewer 2, despite the code being available to Snowstorm for nigh-on a month. Instead we have bouncy bits; and while these may have a short-term “wow” factor, as soon as the code is available in the likes of Firestorm and Dolphin 2, which do have the Filter code, people will quickly switch away from Viewer 2
  • JIRAs such as SVC-6751, SVC-6793, and VWR-24807 – all common-sense measures to help provide areasonable expectation of privacy remain unassigned
  • Sections 4.3 and 8.3 of the ToS remain somewhat in opposition to one another
  • The Community Standards remain vague and the Privacy Policy barely offers any firm comfort to users in terms of safeguarding privacy.

It is understandable that the last two of these bullet points will take time to resolve – assuming they are being worked on at all. But given all that has happened around RedZone, keeping silent or avoiding the JIRAs and pushing back on the Media Filter – even as an interim solution – does not give any kind of indication that LL take people’s privacy seriously.

Frankly, people need the assurance that Linden Lab will not tolerate:

  • The creation, distribution and use of any device that seeks to link and / or make available information on alternative accounts by any means, either directly as an in-world device, or via any method using the Second Life Servers or via transmission to any third party database or server
  • The creation, distribution and use of any device that seeks to link avatar accounts with other ancillary information related to user accounts, such as IP addresses, for the purposes of alternative account detection or which may be considered by Linden Lab to infringe on the privacy and security of other users.
  • That such infringements of privacy include the subsequent distribution of any gathered information, either directly (by providing online access to the data) or indirectly (through the transmission of the data to any devices held in-world).

People need to see this enshrined in the Privacy Policy and linked to from the ToS. Beyond this, they need to have the assurance that both the gathering and the sharing of any information relating to their accounts over and above that which is available within the bounds of SL cannot take place without their explicit consent.

Privacy is extremely important for anyone putting themselves out there, expressing themselves, or expressing a side of themselves through an avatar. People don’t want other people to connect the dots from their avatar to their real life person – or even, for that matter, to an alt. One of the ethical obligations we have is to protect people’s privacy.”

– Rod Humble to Dusan Writer, 12th Feb, 2011.

In an age where people’s right to privacy is increasingly being looked upon disparagingly – often by those who will go to great lengths to protect their own privacy – Rod Humble’s comments to Dusan Writer have considerable resonance among the Second Life community. It’s really about time that Linden Lab gave some indication they are taking this position to heart – not just with regards to integration with Facebook or whatever – but in giving us the fundamental assurance that our privacy when in-world is being duly safeguarded.

Further Reading

Hamlet – out of touch?

Ann OToole tweeted a link to Hamlet Au’s latest article over on New World Notes. Now, I’ve always viewed a lot of Hamlet’s writing with a critical eye, I’ll admit. While there have been times I’ve agreed with him – there have been equal times when I’ve found his views overly biased and, well, wanting.

In the case of his latest post, I have to say I find him not so much wanting, as flat-out wrong.

It is Hamlet’s contention that the real reason that Second Life is flatlining in terms of growth is down to no other reason than – wait for it – we the users ourselves.  We are apparently so frightened by the concept of change, that we are in effect preventing Linden Lab from making the kind of changes that are needed to “save” the platform; that the Lab is somehow paralysed because any attempt at change is instantly met by a howling outcry that rules against ideas being implemented.

As evidence of this, Hamlet cites two of his recent posts – one of which was a contentious push of his own Facebook agenda.  Leaving aside his attempted change-of-focus of that article when he refers to it in his latest piece, Hamlet fails to appreciate that the perceived “backlash” against his post was not so much because it demonstrated a reluctance among users to accept and embrace change, but rather against his position that the only way for Second Life to survive is to get a lot closer to Facebook.

Arguably, the reverse is actually the case. While many might not agree with him at times, John Dvorak makes a reasonably good case for Second Life keeping away from Facebook.

In repeatedly calling for “closer ties” to Facebook, Hamlet seems unable to grasp something: Second Life IS already a social medium. It’s also something, in fairness, that is lost on some at Linden Lab.

Where else can one experience such a rich and diverse world of entertainment, interaction and culture in such a free-form, immersive manner? Facebook? Not likely. Second Life encourages more than yet another point-and-click, “do as we say” approach to digital interaction. It inspires creativity; it encourages a deeper social interaction – of actually making friends rather than simply forming a small, closed circle of (generally) family and close friends. It gives wings to the imagination for those who wish to soar – prims and (soon) Mesh give rise to magnificent and engrossing worlds and environments that go far beyond the two-dimensional point-and-click ethos of Facebook.

Almost a year ago, Philip Rosedale spoke about “breaking down the walls” around the Second Life garden. It was an impassioned address. While there may have been various nuances to his speech, I really don’t think he was talking about replacing one set of walls for another. And make no mistake, by comparison with the richness the depth that can be found in Second Life, Facebook is a constrained, restrictive world of glass walls. This is not to say it is without value for those who use it – far from it. But when compared to Second Life, it cannot come across as anything less than shallow by comparison.

Certainly, there are areas where links between Second Life and Facebook should be explored and accepted: while it is unlikely that Second Life is going to have a mass appeal with Facebook users, it is nevertheless true that some Facebook users could very well find Second Life attractive. As such, there is benefit in leveraging Facebook as a means of advertising Second Life and reaching out to a wider audience. But again, this is way different to (as has unfortunately been the case) – trying to drive Second Life users into the waiting arms of Facebook.

Leaving the Facebook issue aside, it is hard to see where Hamlet can definitively state the existing user base is stagnating Second Life. Yes, there are at times very vocal minorities. Yes, people do at time dig their heels in at changes. However, I’ve yet to see either of these actually stop Linden Lab for the most part from implementing changes. Outcry didn’t stop the OpenSpace farrago, the Adult Policy Changes debacle and the like. And in many instances, changes are actively being cried out for – like Mesh.

There are many issues with Second Life, sure. There is much to be sorted out, technically and in terms of policy and direction. But to suggest that the problems associated with moving SL forward start and end with the current user base is to shoot very, very wide of the mark.

Whether Hamlet likes it or not, the established user base is actually passionate about the platform. We care about it and its future. It’s why many of us are here after years of highs and lows that have seen us at times battered and cajoled. Fact is, we probably have a clearer idea of what could make Second Life swing than any single individual caught by his own bias and – dare I say – feeling a little hurt at the reaction to his repeated flogging of the Facebook pony.

Restoring confidence

Just how widely known is the RedZone issue?

One could argue that it is constrained to a few hundred people – the Greenzone group, those that blog about the situation and those that participate in or watch the SLU Epic Thread. Many are involved in all three, making the count apparently smaller.

However, go in-world, and it is clear that a lot of people are aware of the issue. Talk comes up in Groups, Notecards are being distributed, advice given, and so on. CouldBe Yue, a long-time resident is spearheading a Twitter / Facebook campaign to make sure the word on issues of privacy is spread outside of Second Life itself – and is in full view of Linden Lab employees – including Rod Humble. Whether this is advisable or not, given the aggressive tone, is hard to say. It could so easily backfire, if one is honest.

That said, Rod Humble actually took time out to make a couple of appearances of at SLU: the first to publish a couple of comments in a thread designed to poke gentle fun at him; the second to make it clear he is aware of the levels of concern by sitting in on the Epic Thread itself – not contributing, just quietly watching.

Many are getting decidedly upset that despite all that has happened, RedZone remains available in Second Life. As such, innocents unaware of all that has happened may well be getting sucked into the scam. Some are already writing Rod Humble off as a CEO; others are demonstrating more patience.

But…one thing is clear. Confidence is being hit. Privacy issues cannot be ignored. Not only do they impact individual users in terms of their enjoyment of the platform, they threaten to destabilise one of its major selling points: – the ability to enjoy rich media content and performances by live artists all over the world.

If people simply shut down their Viewer’s ability to deliver media, or repeatedly keep hitting DENY on their Media Filter, than music of any kind in SL is going to be a major casualty. As it is, determining what may be a genuine music stream and what may not, isn’t particularly easy for the non-technical. Ergo, unless some positive action is taken, there is a risk more and more people are simply not going to risk accepting unknown media streams – and could well stop going to venues and shows.

As I’ve already commented, it is time for LL to stop playing whack-a-mole in these matters.

But, what, precisely can they do? Viewer 2.x doesn’t have the Media Filter, so any public statement could, at the very least, result in people stampeding away from it to third-party viewers. At worst it could result in panic in general, a further loss of confidence and very negative tabloid headlines (“Linden Lab admits Second Life wide open to hackers and fraudsters!”).

Some have said the lack of action on RedZone specifically is due to an on-going Federal investigation. Well, this may be so; but I can hardly see the Feds saying to LL, “No, you can’t protect your users from this scam, because we need to do X, Y and Z.” Let’s face it, LL can block and ban any item or individual howsoever they like, without having to give a specific reason – and removing the items from in-world is hardly going to bring any Federal (or other) investigation screaming to a halt.

It’s far more likely that RedZone is still there because, despite all his faffing around in the past, the creator has, technically, made the device compliant with the revised Community Standards. But really, this is no longer reason to allow the device to continue in-world.

It has been established the database has been hacked; the exact status of the database is unclear data has been shared – not intentionally, perhaps, but that just makes things worse, whatever the reason for the hack.

Therefore, anyone still using the product is putting their own details and information relating to anyone else entering their land without the benefit of the Media Filter potentially at risk. Therefore, it is simply in the best interests of all concerned to ensure RedZone is removed from all in-world locations.

Right now, the longer it remains, the longer people are going to stay focused on it, and the greater are the chances that SL’s – and LL’s – reputation is going to suffer greater damage, be it through tabloid reporting or through Twitter and Facebook campaigns.

I still have faith in Rod Humble. He walked into the middle of this mess, and so it’s going to hit him hard. I would also like to believe that he genuinely believes his own comments on matters of privacy. As such, and in order to start rebuilding confidence, I’d strongly urge Rod to:

  • Have RedZone removed from the grid. Now. Whether or not it is in violation of the ToS and / or the Community Standards is no longer relevant.  The database behind it has been compromised; it is no longer clear if the database is up or down, or even under the control of the individual who created it. As such, the risk to those both using the device and those being unwittingly scanned has potentially increased exponentially
  • Made sure adoption of the Media Filter in Viewer 2.x is accelerated. Make it a priority. Get a Viewer updated out into the world with the Filter included. People can wait a little longer on things like VWR-1037, but the Filter is a must
  • Made sure the release of the Media Filter with the patch is fully and properly covered: go out and blog yourself. Explain some of the issues – no need to be alarmist – describe what steps have been taken; get Torley to give a short tutorial on the Filter
  • If you’re comfortable with it, give an indication of what, internally, LL are looking at doing in the future to further strengthen the platform.

Beyond this: make sure that you address issues around the matter of data collection. Looking at the sharing of data simply isn’t enough. Sure, there are circumstances where you’d like third-party organisations to be able to collect demographics and other information; there are also user-run services that you doubtless find valuable – as we do – such as Tyche Shepherd’s Grid Survey that need to be allowed to continue. But such cases can be ring-fenced. Checks and balances can be defined.

You have a ToS and a set of Community Standards and a Privacy Policy that stand as a triumvirate guarding the entry portals of Second Life – but they are either somewhat contradictory in terms (ToS 4.3 and ToS 8.3 being the clearest examples of this), or they simply take on a one-sided approach of safeguarding Linden Lab.

If you truly care about your users, take the time to overall the ToS the CS and the Privacy Policy and make them a cohesive set of documents that protect Linden Lab and offer your users a reasonable expectation of security and privacy as they go about their Second Lives. Be transparent. People will trust you more for doing so.

Time to end the whack-a-mole

As reported earlier, the RedZone situation has been blown wide open. However one looks at the video that was released last week, the data passed to the Alphaville Herald, and everything that lays behind them; it would appear that all roads lead back to domain and the avatar of zFire Xue.

Indeed, it now appears that zFire, in another guise, is behind the so-called “Knights of Mars”, an “organisation” promising to get avatars banned from Second Life – no matter what the reason – for a fee; even boasting that their activities are against the ToS (“Is this against SecondLife’s TOS? You bet!” screams their FAQ).

All-in-all the evidence – to those outside – is damning. One would hope that it is enough for Linden Lab to take the appropriate actions, and sooner rather than later.

It’s not even as if this is a sheltered incident. Over the past week, locating and stopping so-called “alt detectors” has become something of a game of whack-a-mole; and poor Soft Linden has been the one stuck at the machine clouting heads:

  • Following the changes to the Community Standards, the creator of Quickware Alt Pro, another device intended to links alts, tried various methods to circumvent LL’s revised position on sharing information gathering within Second Life – efforts which eventually earned him, at least one of his Alts and his device a ban from Second Life
  • Following this, the imaginatively named “Jacks Sparrow” of “Sparrow Industries” popped up with another “alt detector”, quickly pressed into use by those looking to replace RedZone, as Theia Magic reported at the time
  • At the same time, a further “alt detector” turned up on the Marketplace, made by one “Gzoa Resident”. Whether genuine or simply an attempt to cash-in on the perceived need for such Right now, technical  tool, the device was pulled by LL after multiple ARs were filed.

So three systems in a space of days, collecting and sharing data; tip of the iceberg, anyone?Meanwhile, Gemini CDS is still very much out there, collecting data. Who knows what else is out there?

And here is where the system falls down at present: Linden Lab have only proscribed against the sharing of collected data. This really isn’t the issue; the issue is the collection of said data.

As the hack of the Emerald database showed, just before the entire Emerald thing blew up around a year ago – as this RedZone situation demonstrates now – allowing anonymous individuals across SL to quietly gather data and funnel it out of SL into their own databases and servers is unacceptable in it present form. It either needs to be outlawed entirely, or steps need to be taken to ensure people are both aware of what is about to happen and have a means of preventing it from happening prior to any attempt at gathering data being made. And this needs to be properly backed up by a clearly-defined Privacy Policy intimately hooked to the Terms of Service such that anyone found to be either circumventing the “right to decline” or using the data other than for its intended purpose will be immediately banned from Second Life.

Reactive efforts – as mighty and as welcome as Soft Linden’s exploits have been (the man has been a hero in this entire situation) – are now not enough.

Even on its own, the RedZone situation, as this news spreads, is going to severely dent people’s confidence in Second Life as a platform and further shake users’ faith that Linden Lab has, as far as possible, got their back covered when it comes to reasonable expectations of privacy.

In a week when RedZone has continued to rock the boat, when Gemini CDS has begun to emerge as still being in widespread use, when Quickware, Sparrow and the “Gzoa” items all pitched up / got whacked, LL remained stubbornly silent on matters, other than Soft’s lone voice on the JIRA (and who out of the majority of SL residents, study the JIRA regularly?). At the same time, multiple questions around RedZone and alt detection raised on the new Community Platform were shut down – hard.

Within Linden Lab there has always been something of a permissive attitude towards many things. Frequently, it’s taken a court case or two to shake the company out of lassitude. People point to Philip Rosedale as the “cool dude” and cite things like “West Coast attitudes”; the Lab itself talks in terms of the (iteself ideological) “Love Machine” and the hippy-ish “Tao of Linden”. They make for really good human interest reads; they make for cosy employee feelings. They frame the Rosedale dream and vision of Second Life.

And they need to stop.

Whack-a-mole is no longer an option – if it ever was. Linden Lab have been trying to a good number of years now to get the platform taken seriously. Unless they grab this particular nettle properly and excise it from their lawn, they are not only going to further damage the credibility of the platform to the world at large, they risk tearing the community itself apart with suspicion and doubt.

People are already avoiding the use of media in their viewers; and while Sione Lumo’s Media Patch is gaining wider acceptance in the Viewer community, the fact is  – again, as I keep on hammering – technical solutions are not the key. Not only are they potentially hard from the non-technical community to grasp, they are a potential threat to the economy (no media = no live music) and they are a challenge to all the little skiddies out there who see such tools as something to be “gotten around”.

Linden Lab need to make a stand. Now. They need to stop with all the Ta0y lovey-dovey. They need to straighten out the ToS and the Community Standards and get themselves a fully-rounded Privacy Policy that completes the triangle. A Privacy Policy that, rather than simply trying to absolve them of any blame if Things Go Wrong, actually sets out the expectations of privacy their users can reasonably expect when signing-up to their service. They need to eliminate contradictions in the ToS around sections 4.3 and 8.3.

Idealism had its place once, back when Second Life was starting out; but the fact is, if the company really wants to be taken seriously, if it really wants to try to leverage the likes of Facebook and the rest, then it needs to do more than simply looking like it means business.

It needs to start acting that way as well – not least where the user base is concerned. If they don’t then Second Life runs a serious risk of being ever-increasingly marginalised as viable platform, and will haemorrhage users as they leave to join those platforms that demonstrate a willingness to meet their expectations.

Privacy: words and deeds

When talking to Dusan Writer recently, Rod Humble made a very interesting statement:

Privacy is extremely important for anyone putting themselves out there, expressing themselves, or expressing a side of themselves through an avatar. People don’t want other people to connect the dots from their avatar to their real life person – or even, for that matter, to an alt. One of the ethical obligations we have is to protect people’s privacy

“People come to Second Life because they want a story, they want to be in a story….and we have an ethical obligation to protect that.

I’m not so sure that the conventional wisdom makes any sense. Yes, it might be technically easy to track people and all that. But in the long-term I’m optimistic that we’ll see the pendulum swing back in the other direction towards more privacy.

And granted, while it can be read at least two ways, LL Board member and investor Mitch Kapor appeared to see the light on matters of privacy when he tweeted:

“The more I learn, the more I see how the whole biz side of social networking is built on surreptitiously stealing personal data”

As regular readers here are only too aware, there has been much of a to-do about RedZone and its data-harvesting & drama/griefing capabilities (I simply cannot refer to it as an “anti-Copybotting tool” due to it being an abject failure in this regard). As has been seen, Linden Lab have made a move to partially close the door on things, although they’ve not – as yet, at least in this affair – gone far enough (and at this point it is only speculation as to whether they’ll go further in this particular matter).

However, the issue of user data – beyond what we volunteer to reveal in our Profiles  – being harvested is still an issue whether or not a single tool and HUD are on the market or not. Viewer patches will help, a clear-cut policy is needed – and users themselves need to be empowered to be able to make a clear-cut choice in matters of privacy.

Ann O’Toole has hit upon one way in which the latter can be achieved, and has raised a JIRA on the matter.

This is an elegant solution because it provides every single user in SL with a choice as to what happens “under the covers” with any data which is linked to them outside of Profile information. As such, it dovetails perfectly with Rod Humble’s stated views on privacy within and beyond Second Life – indeed it encourages the swing of the pendulum to which he alludes –  and curtails the act of surreptitiously stealing personal data which appears to have Mitch Kapor somewhat concerned about in his Tweet.

So – I urge you all very strongly to go visit SVC-6793 and add your weight to those voting / watching the issue – it really is in your best interests to do so.