Virtual Property, Rights, Riots and Governance

“Virtual property” popularly refers to virtual goods – items purchased for use or display within virtual worlds, online games, and social networking platforms (like Facebook). The term could equally apply to other cyberspace assets, like land in Second Life or Entropia. Even items acquired through the investment of time or expertise (rather than a specific currency exchange), like my Sea Turtle. If you use such simple definitions, property does not influence rights or governance: The virtual environment doesn’t substantively change anything in law. Contracts can still control the relationship between the people and organisations involved. Copyright still protects the underlying electronic and creative concepts. What’s all the fuss about?

The utopian ideals of some of the early internet pioneers are long since forgotten. More recent debates about the rights of avatars have been steam-rollered under “the tyranny of the End User Licence Agreement” (quoting Andres Guadamuz – although perhaps such an agreement is still more democratic than a unsigned contract with society). So who cares? Read More

Thoughts on the Resolution of Nothing

I ponder nothing. Endlessly. Nothing in the intangible sense – the increasing dominance of things without physical form in society and economy. Nothing in the sceptical nihilistic sense – the “meaninglessness of existence”. Even the nothing inherent in the stupidity required for cleverness.

Nothing isn’t new. The problem baffled thinkers for much of the 20th century. In the 21st we may finally be being overwhelmed by it. Possibly without realising. How society resolves a potentially uncomfortable relationship with nothing is important. And intriguing. It’s possibly the most difficult problem to resolve, yet underpins many contemporary issues.

This article introduces 3 approaches to resolving nothing. They are an attempt to summarise various different articles I’ve written over the past year. Broadly:

  • Tangible Renaissance: Physical representations of nothing. Idols to communicate abstract values. Belief in certainty.
  • Virtual Illusion: Virtual consumerism. An economy base on nothing, happily sustained in the denial of the meaninglessness. Belief in who cares?
  • Post-Existential Skepticism: Understanding built from nothing. Presumption of illusion. Belief in uncertainty.

This text is poorly researched, incomplete, and, well, uncertain. But it might be an interesting summary of the extent of my current confusion. This is written from a Western, especially British-American perspective. Keep these quotes in mind: Read More

Poor Gina

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. Read More

Railways for Prosperity

Recreating the Island of Sodor in Kidderminster. In the dying years of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the United Kingdom government launched a policy document called “Roads for Prosperity”. £23 billion ($35 billion) would fund a network of highway improvements. Schemes that eased capacity constraints on the strategic (primary routes) road network. It was a response to rising car use, and the belief that not providing sufficient highway capacity would damage the UK economy – national prosperity.

It didn’t happen. Neither the threat to prosperity, nor the policy:

  • Environmentalists rallied against the few early projects (famously turning the Newbury Bypass and Twyford Down into civil battlegrounds) – road-building became politically negative, rather than positive.
  • There was never really enough money in national budget to fund the policy – increasingly obvious as the UK economy dipped into the recession of the early 1990s.
  • Even with the policy, roads would still be built slower that road traffic was growing – it was not possible to “build your way out” of the problem. It’s worse than it first seems, because new roads generate additional traffic growth, requiring more road capacity, generating more traffic…

The legacy was apparent in Tony Blair’s first Labour administration (or more accurately, John Prescott’s, the minister who led the transport and environmental agendas in the late 1990s): Much greater emphasis on sustainability, local projects, and use of forgotten modes, like buses and shoes.

Now, step forward 20 years to 2010.

The Secretary of State for railways and other transport, Lord Adonis, announces plans for a new high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham. At least £15 billion ($23 billion) for the first phase, rising to £30 billion with extensions further north. (Read those figures with caution – the costs of the previous West Coast Mainline upgrade project increased so much that nobody could remember how low the initial estimate was.) Inflation means that the cost of this latest rail project is only about half the (real terms) cost of Roads for Prosperity. But Roads for Prosperity proposed thousands of miles of highway, across many different locations, compared to a few hundred miles of railway track between a few large cities. And “Railways for Prosperity”, as I’ve corrupted the latest proposal, doesn’t have the pretence of strategy.

Politically it’s work of genius – the benefits flow to the political class (who tend to use trains), especially those living in increasingly marginal electoral territories in the West Midlands and North-West of England. Meanwhile, the Peoples’ Republic of Great Missenden (and soon likely every other other community near the route) is up in arms because the totalitarian regime they likely never voted for, has decided to build a railway – without the local station necessary for them to commute to London. I exaggerate, but only slightly.

Forget the “high-speed” aspect of the title. Operationally, the need is to increase capacity (see the box below). Make space for more trains on one of the busiest railway lines in Britain. More capacity creates more redundancy in the system, which makes it easier to recover from operational problems, and so makes trains more reliable. From bitter personal experience as a passenger, I suspect reliability is worth more than speed here. Of course, “better reliability” sounds a lot vaguer than “30 minutes faster”.

Read beyond the concrete, and the talk is all about “economic growth”, and “jobs”, and.

It’s at times like this that I want to pick up a shotgun and blow my brains out. 20 years later we’re back where we started. And nobody seems to have noticed.

This article uses historic examples to question the strength of the relationship between transport and the economy. It highlights the political biases towards railways, and their funding. The article explains why grand transport projects remain popular, when their overall impact on problems is often minimal. Rough analysis is presented that demonstrates the futility of building new railways – the 21st century reality, that we simply cannot afford to continue enlarging our transport networks in response to increased passenger demand. Finally, a stark comparison is made between communications and “transport” policy, which questions the validity of spending 15 times more on a new railway, than on a core element of “digital” inclusion. Along the way, the article clarifies a few popular misconceptions, from the influence of Unionism, to the impact of “integration”. Read More

Valuing Nothing

In 2007 I wrote some introductory Thoughts on a Socio-Economic Environment based on Nothing. This article continues to explore the value of things in a highly intangible, knowledge-based economy. It wanders through internet-based payment systems, economic structure, role of government, organisation of information, community, and society, before disappearing into the realms of philosophy. It contains no answers, but may prove thought-provoking. Read More

De-Analysing Blizzard’s Add-On Policy

Blizzard Entertainment’s new add-on policy has been discussed by everyone from Lum to Slashdot. The number of developers directly affected by the change is small, since only a few add-ons are popular enough to be considered commercial ventures. The policy is more significant because it changes a lot of established conventions, and goes to the heart of how Blizzard embraces (or increasingly, shuns) the talent within its player community. This article is an attempt to analyse the real motivations behind the policy, and highlight the apparent contradiction in policy between in-game add-ons and web-based services. Read More

Virtual Policy and Law – Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium

The first Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium was held on 15 August 2007. It aimed to bring together academics and the “games” industry, to discuss topics from games industry innovation to policy in virtual worlds. The diversity of people these topics attracted was remarkable – from philosophers to corporate executives. It should come as no surprise that we all struggled to understand each other. Yet this was a group who merely by expressing their interest in such an event, tend towards curiosity.

This is the first set of notes from the Edinburgh Digital Interactive Symposium, covering virtual policy and legal issues. A second set of notes discusses innovation in the video games industry. These notes are my personal interpretation of what was discussed, not a transcript of the event.

Law

The lawyers are very excited about virtual worlds. Antonis Patrikios, from Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP, was speaking. At the most basic level, it’s a clean slate with no case law, yet almost endless contentious issues. You can almost see the dollar signs in their eyes. At one extreme there is a school of thought that wants to declare a new thread of international law – that is, to treat virtual environments as separate legal jurisdictions. At the other, the simple statement that real world objectives (and therefore regulation and law) will be directly applied to virtual worlds, without special consideration.

An example of one of the many crunch-points: If by “playing” I generate money-tokens (i.e., not necessarily legal currency, but having the same effect within the world they are generated), and someone does something that scams me of those money-tokens, do I have any rights in (physical) criminal law? If prior to bankruptcy, I move all my assets into a virtual currency, can the authorities recover them? One position is that I only have rights if the operators of the virtual environment allow me to legitimately transfer my money-tokens into real money. But it could be argued that if something is perceived as having value, it has value, even if it can’t be directly or legally (contractual law) monetarized.

Now, add to the equation the fact that the representation of the person within the virtual environment may not be traceable to a real legal entity. (There’s a major philosophical argument here too, that I’ll step over because I don’t understand it – although I’m told the fact I don’t understand it is fundamental to my ability to try – er, yes.) The one entity that always is traceable is the operator of the world – who of course have no legal structure themselves, since they are typically a business and not a civil authority. The anonymity issues may be solved technologically, but the very possibility that operators might get dragged into criminal cases triggered by what their users do, is pretty frightening.

The role of physical location of operators, technology (servers), and users gets even more complex than in the (already arguably broken) website/e-commerce model. Does intellectual property of things created in these worlds transfer to the user? Trademarks are defined territorially, yet where is this virtual territory? And is a virtual re-creation the same as a real product anyway? There are big US/EU differences here. For example, in the EU it is far harder to patent the implementation of an idea, rather than the idea itself. So a lot of software patents that exist in the US, don’t exist in the EU, since software is commonly just the technical implementation of an idea.

There’s an interesting aside here on when money becomes a currency, and when a game becomes a bank. In the UK, if you offer credit, you’ll drift into financial regulation. The question nobody can answer is when that provision gets so large it becomes a bank, or so popular it threatens an existing currency.

Policy

Chris Francis (IBM) attempted a basic differentiation between virtual games/worlds. He takes more of a policy perspective than others. You have to be able to quantify each virtual experience on a spectrum, otherwise everything from simple online games to open real-currency trading platforms will be seen as the same thing in any regulatory debate. There are four factors, each of which covers a spectrum of topics. Generally the further to the left you are, the more like a game (and hence the most likely to avoid regulation), the further to the right, the more like real life (and so the more likely to be regulated):

Economy/tradability: In-game “gold” <<—>> Real money.
Identity/communication: Text <<–> Voice <–>> Accountability.
Plot: Scripted <<—>> Freeform.
Data flow: Augmented virtuality <<—>> Augmented reality.

Augmented virtuality I didn’t quite understand as a concept, but I’d interpret it as the re-creation of augmented reality concepts into an inherently virtual setting, rather than a real-world one. The interesting current topic is voice. Voice is a significant shift into the realm of communications legislation, since voice is widely understood to be communication, while text is a grey area. It follows that in introducing voice clients within games, game operators are more likely to open themselves up to regulation. I don’t think the games industry had considered that.

William Garrood spoke from Ofcom, the UK communications regulator. In the EU, active regulation is currently focused on television-like services, particularly using the radio spectrum for transmission. Electronic Communication Services legislation first appeared in 1998, passed into EU law in 2000, and has slowly been added to law across EU states. (It is worth noting that the regulatory cycle is almost 10 years, the academic cycle for studying it all is 3 years, yet 6 months is a typical industry timescale to deploying new technology in the arena.) The current legislation could allow virtual worlds to be regulated, at least in part – but nobody is yet. This was intentional in the design of the legislation: The EU agenda is to move away from regulation – there is a desire to try and foster self-regulation.

The EU may be regarded as a lower-risk environment than the US, simply because the US has no apparent boundaries – yet a litigious culture that will make discovering those boundaries expensive, and arguably will resolve them in favour of the dominant industry. The EU has a structure that is likely to “step in” if it looks like everything is going to hell in a handcart.

Ofcom is quite focused on the BBC‘s traditional territory: Supporting “socially valuable content” in virtual environments. They already have a strategy called the Public Service Publisher. They’re aware that young audiences, in particular, are moving away from television, and are looking to fill the “post-TV gap”. It’s positive regulation, although how it works in practice is unseen.