Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Avatar liability and community

IMVU has added age verification, so the spread of identity determinism in avatar-based communities continues. Smart legal minds have pointed out the goodness of this but have noted that this is not a solution to the problems, merely a toe in the water.

The original opportunity of anonymity is fading. Now, one's avatar in a VW is forced into a sometimes uncomfortable association with one's full RL identity. For predators, good, no loss there. For the rest of us, it's murkier.

Avatar is defined as “incarnation of a higher being onto planet earth.” Not willing to be bested, we lesser beings now use our avatars to incarnate versions of ourselves possessing godlike powers into magical domains. But we don’t just walk around; we use our avatars to approach the semantic web through a back door.

Instead of waiting for a personal software agent to fill our coffers with information, as the semantic web envisions, we have already put ourselves compulsively to work on Face book, blackberry, Wikipedia, Flikr,, Google and Twitter doing our hunter-gethering as we always have done. Why? Because it’s not simply information we want. We need to continue to advance our relationships, behavior, law, community, and self.

Gartner's prediction of the coming predominance of the avatar based communications platform fulfills on the long prediction we will process and disseminate all this newly available information across vast distances from a single, integrated, recognizable and verifiable incarnation.

Traction gained by semi-reality now demands that our poor avatar show a human face while this is going on. Messy things, humans.

Nested regulation in the real world waterfalls from human rights, through national and regional law, and finally the law of your community in whatever form that takes; from building to family.

Avatars are risky because the guiding chunk of the regulatory waterfall between community and world-at-large is missing. We don't know what laws we are subject to, and entities don't know how to successfully identify and punish violators of their laws. A good commentary on legal sparring in Second life shows how the problems are not limited to the regulatory level, but are personal as well.

Obvious scenario: our age-verified avatar smokes a virtual cigarette while interacting with the other members of the Marlboro tribe. New York State prosecutes identifiable people who smoke in public semi-real spaces, forcing the provider of the virtual world to stop realistic representations of public smoking forcing a change to the Terms of Service. Liability falls to the individual if they refuse this regulation on the grounds that the smoking is not real. The avatar is cast out.

Saudi Arabia has some bones to pick with the avatars of Second Life.

Legal precedent allows a virtual community to regulate itself as long as that regulation does not conflict with the regulations it inherits.

Avatars will be insured like cars.

Liabilty is currency in a virtual world. Any Avatar Metadata Protocol can only be viable through an avatar’s application for acceptance into a community resourceful enough to limit risk for its “citizens” in a way that is affordable.

A community Terms of Service becomes its business model; the TOS will be as behaviorally free as the amount of risk its host community is able to share. A closed system that limits and monitors speech, UGC, and behavioral representations will vastly lower its liability and therefore the cost to that community for allowing entry by an avatar. Value will have to replace behavioral freedom in order for an avatar to bother engaging in the community.

Above that, communities must inherit the laws in force at the physical location of the world host, be it a private server or a commercial entity.

Members of commercial communities must indemnify the host entity in return for access to its value.

Members of privately served communities using software like Metaplace (clever name) will limit risk by serving from low liability locales in addition to obtaining a TOS from the avatar.

Avatar metadata will be extensible passports that attach boundary agreements for travel to a different community.

Value wars between competing commercial communities will break out as they attempt to include an avatar into their community exclusively.

Sounds like fun, huh?

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