Comments on my original WeeWorld article continues to provide a fascinating insight into tweeny online society. Not just that so many people think I can help them, when I cannot. But that users are now as likely to be concerned about “stolen” user accounts, as they are about the social injustices of paying for points:

“Hi my name is Gina… I’m nine years old… I brought a prepaid card then some one hacked me for no reason… The username is *****… I used a fake e-mail and I don’t know how to get it back =[ Can you help me? PLEASE!”

I removed the 200 redundant characters Gina had added to the final word, that conveyed the true extent of her desperation. Literate, for such an apparently young US citizen, she also reveals some child-like confusion in causality and logic. Not that most adults could solve her problem: A “recovered” password can only be sent to the email address associated with the account – yet to receive the message, the email address cannot be fake. Further help is locked away on forums which can only be read by users who are already signed in. Signed in, using the password they can’t recover…

For a 21st century child, this is much closer to a science-fiction nightmare than adults might think: Inadvertently being locked out of a part of society by the flaws of an infallible machine. A part of society, because this stuff genuinely matters – often as much as traditional “playground” relationships. Substantial time (and often Dollar money) is invested in a user’s account. Huge networks of friends are built. The ability to start again, or start again somewhere else, is poor consolation indeed.

We can argue that having one’s virtual avatar hacked into is a “rite of passage” into the digital economy. A necessarily painful lesson that, long-term, will make adult activities such as online banking much safer. After all, this is only a childhood game, isn’t it?

Yet Gina’s short plea contains a lot of unpleasant truths, that adult society seems reluctant to address.

This article explores how the law, as experienced by the generation practically born online, differs from law as previous generations have learned it. Worlds where everyone is at least 13 years old, even if they aren’t. Where wrongs are not righted, because they’re not in the contract. And copyright legitimises a new, almost feudal social structure. A selective, but slightly unnerving, insight into a generation that may grow up to believe that law is for something else, because it so obviously isn’t for them. On this page:

(Small disclaimer: This article describes my interpretation of the behaviour reported by others, as the basis for thought about wider issues. The examples here are not intended to imply any specific breach of law. While I have tended to pick one teen social world, the commentary applies to many similar social platforms and games.)

Escape to Everland

That a 9-year-old is using the internet shouldn’t surprise anyone. Unfortunately, WeeWorld, like many commercial website operators, requires all registered users to be at least age 13. Commonly because the United States Federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act imposes restrictions on younger users – notably, verified parental consent. The costs of administering a COPPA-compliant website is higher, so it’s a lot easier to ask younger children not to register.

Of course, that doesn’t stop a child declaring their age incorrectly. Especially if they really want to use a service.

The result is an “Everland”: An online world where everyone is at least aged 13, regardless of their true age. The opposite of J. M. Barrie’s Neverland – the world of Peter Pan’s never-ending childhood.

The 13-year criteria is not entirely arbitary: It’s the point at which most societies recognise that humans are (cognitively) able to take responsibility for their actions. Historically most obvious in religious “coming of age” rites, such as the Jewish Bar Mitzvah. However, the ability to form social relationships starts to occur much younger. So it seems almost inevitable that socially-orientated internet services will attract people who are too young to officially use them.

The COPPA legislation has the best of intentions, by acknowledging that younger children require greater parental care. The US state of Maine provides an excellent example of the difficulty of balancing rights within child internet legislation: Its Act To Prevent Predatory Marketing Practices against Minors has far broader scope than COPPA, potentially turning almost any form of engagement with Maine’s teenagers into a (expensive) liability. Logically that leads to a situation where teenagers are blocked from substantial parts of the internet, a position some online businesses have already adopted.

(That tendency for the smallest legislature to create de facto (in practice) internet law for everyone, also raises some interesting questions about the structure of governance.)

I might argue that we should focus on parental responsibility, rather than simply trying to make web services responsible for someone else’s children. But in practice, neither group can exercise effective control: Parents often know less about the internet than their offspring. The best website operators can still be deceived. The smartest kid in room is surely the hardest to protect from themselves.

The danger of Everland is not so much that it exists, but that we think it doesn’t. That by reassuring ourselves that everyone is at least 13 years old, the reasons for legislating have been addressed. Meanwhile, any serious problem goes underground, and becomes even harder to tackle.

Crime and Justice in Toytown

Such an apparently relaxed attitude to “the fine print” has not diluted users’ sense of natural law. Those who have lost control of their accounts, due to some form of unauthorised “hacking”, both feel a sense of moral entitlement (“worked hard for everything I lost”) and a sense that the crime was unjustified (“did nothing wrong”, “for no reason”). This is, of course, “unfair”. Really:

“I had over 600 friends and over 70 items and I was very happy… until someone hacked me! Now I have no points because I can’t afford them, therefore, no one will talk to me… and my history on Weeworld is ruined!”

In WeeWorld’s consumerist microcosm, points buy you items, and items buy you friends. Such a hack is a lot worse than a bad hair day.

Virtual “theft” is widespread in large online environments, especially games. Consider Frank Pearce’s comment, that a World of Warcraft user account is worth more than a stolen Credit Card on the black market, and you start to appreciate the non-triviality of the issue. Like more traditional criminality, stealing accounts appears to be a lot more cost-effective (for the perpetrator) than spending time earning transferable value yourself. For the world/website operator, such attacks both create unhappy customers and unwanted administrative burdens. Especially frustrating, because security lapses are rarely caused by the operator themselves.

Legally, any offense tends to be against the web service operator, not the user: As the next section explains, a user account is normally just a license to use software, maintained under contract law.

Consequently, the type of justice a child (or more accurately, their parents) might expect in the physical world, rarely happens in the virtual. The wrong of the hacked WeeMee is never righted. At best, the avatar is simply returned to its previous state. Insurance, not justice. It does nothing to allay the fear of victims. This comment was simply signed, “scared like hell”:

“Everyone is getting hacked by this one person and he says I will be next… He leaves a cryin’ face on everyone he hacks… and makes them nude.”

Earlier generations learned to police their societies – to manage social chaos by making people accountable for their actions. It’s a fairly basic requirement of social stability. Yet here we find no retribution, no chance of forgiveness, no nothing. We’ve corrupted what would otherwise be individual rights, into a commercial right. And in doing so, risk overlooking the importance of personal rights – and responsibilities – in maintaining a stable society.

Virtual Feudalism

Adult parents might reasonably assume that buying WeeMee clothing is like buying physical world clothing from a store: That purchase implies ownership. I wonder how many have read the 7000-word terms of service, that their child probably agreed to on their behalf? Full of references to software, license, service. Reminders that proprietary and copyrights do not transfer away from the service operator. That everything may be taken away for any of a plethora of potential breaches of contract (including being 9).

Everything important remains the property of the commercial operator, however much the user may be encouraged to feel immersed in their “virtual self”. Except, of course, for the user’s responsibility for their own actions: Users’ liabilities remain theirs. Cynically, this is taking rights, without corresponding duties.

Software (and similar) are single fixed intellectual property rights. Everything that occurs within them is logically subservient to that single right, since everything is merely a use of the software’s unique algorithm. It’s not quite as black and white as I suggest, although the owner does retain considerable control over what users do. This might be sensible logic for a glorified electronic calculator – something with simple, unchanging functionality. But this might not be sensible logic for a system that supports the complex social interactions of human beings.

The structure emerging mirrors the “feudalism” associated with the Medieval (European) period: A sovereign (state) grants rights (copyright) to a lord (commercial business) over land (social software). The lord then distributes (license) the land among people (users), in return for their vassalage (contract and custom). The activities and “freedoms” of these people to live upon the land are then controlled by the lord, with varying degrees of reciprocity between lord and people.

This modern form of “virtual feudalism” has an important difference: That one person can maintain many allegiances, and potentially vary them over time. While that choice may seem very democratic, it can also become a choice between interacting with the people that make your life (socially and economically) worthwhile, or living life as a hermit. Likewise the concept of ‘net neutrality (the ability to build and operate your own internet service) doesn’t provide the (increasingly) billions of dollars required to develop and manage popular online social platforms, so becomes a largely theoretical freedom for those in mainstream society.

Such a social structure can be achieved without ever passing new legislation: Existing law merely fails to acknowledge that a piece of software has now taken on a significant social role. And in a consumerist environment, owning is over-rated – having is what’s important… Does anyone care?

If you just want to dress up and chat – which neatly summarises the desires of much of postmodern humanity – it probably doesn’t matter. For the rest of us, such feudal structures tend to restrict creativity – especially re-creativity – because users have limited rights to improve the environment they inhabit, export things out of that environment, or really do anything other than participate in a highly interactive movie.

Yet since the Statute of Anne, legislators have cited copyright as a means of encouraging creativity, and ensuring the benefits of such creativity are spread as widely as possible. That copyright law should form the basis of the opposite, is confusing.

Box: Least Bad Solution?
The increasing dominance of large numbers of “small intellectual property rights” in socio-economic activity, is a serious contemporary problem: Legally acknowledged rights that have some value, but not enough individual value to justify actively trying to protect them. Like this article. However, a global system to manage such small rights appears to be impossible. Impossible because accounting for the value of the right costs too much. Impossible because of its inherent complexity: Systems of (intellectual property) rights are fundamental to the operation of increasingly intangible (especially Western) economies. Introduce too many small rights, create too much complexity, and civilization collapses under the burden. A return to more feudal structures might represent a least bad solution to such a potentially crippling problem. Re-imposing greater hierarchy, to reduce the “top-level” complexity of the system. An intriguing counter-point.

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