February 16, 2010

COPPA, hate speech and Avatars United

Oooh two more issues that are probably going to bog down Linden Lab following their purchase of Avatars United: COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act) compliance; and hate speech.

Just when you thought the security issues were enough to make Mark Kingdon start to regret his purchase of AU, a number of folks in the Twittersphere (Maggie Darwin for one) have been asking some rather pointed questions about some other apparently overlooked elements at AU.


First things first. Linden Lab bought AU. Linden Lab is located in the U.S. AU is located in Sweden. Is AU subject to COPPA regulations? Oh you bet it is!! Here's the language:
2) OPERATOR.—The term "operator"—
(A) means any person who operates a website located on the Internet or an online service and who collects or maintains personal information from or about the users of or visitors to such website or online service, or on whose behalf such information is collected or maintained, where such website or online service is operated for commercial purposes, including any person offering products or services for sale through that website or online service, involving commerce—
(i) among the several States or with 1 or more foreign nations;
(ii) in any territory of the United States or in the District of Columbia, or between any such territory and—
(I) another such territory; or
(II) any State or foreign nation; or
(iii) between the District of Columbia and any State, territory, or foreign nation; but
What does COPPA mean? Basically it sets standards for consent for use of the site AND for collection of data about the user that are different for children under the age of 13 vs. 13 and older. You can read the gory details here: http://www.coppa.org/comply.htm Bottom line is that NO website operator wants to have to abide by COPPA if they can avoid it. This means that MOST sites have an immediate "Must be 13 or older to sign up" registration process unless their content is absolutely squeeky clean G-rated.

Because Avatars United is open to "avatars" from a broad base of MMO games including Playstation Home, the presumption may be that AU is "targeted" to children under 13. Ooops. That kicks off COPPA right away regardless of the registration.

So is AU doing any of this? Nope. The registration asks your birthdate but since the date goes to 2005, theoretically I could be 5 years old and sign-up! See screen shot below:
Linden Lab, you got some 'splainin to do! Clearly there's a LOT of content on AU already that's adult oriented. From skin shops to sex groups, you'll find it all. And that's the point of COPPA. Kids shouldn't be able to. So I wonder how many avatars are going to be kicked out for being underage? Or will the Lab be forced to make AU a G-rated site? OK, on to the next topic. Hate speech.

Hate speech and Avatars United

Since AU is like the wild west right now, it doesn't surprise me in the least that haters and griefers would show up. Since anyone can create a group in AU for any reason, a few have caught the attention of the Twittersphere. One, called Gayhate, simply states: "We hate gays, geeks, and fat people who sit around all day." A couple of 14-year olds probably created it as a crude joke, but still, it poses a huge problem for Linden Lab. How are they going to police AU for this sort of garbage? There are already 2800 groups on AU and, assuming the site gains popularity, there will be thousands more.

Linden Lab can't even moderate its own forums and blogs! (Which are now public by the way and not firewalled behind the "must be 18 to participate" that used to be required for the old vBulletin forums.). I'm very concerned that the company is teetering on the edge of total anarchy.

Mark Kingdon, how are you sleeping these days? Did you guys think this one through?


  1. I wonder how much due diligence went into the acquisition. Looks like AU is not be the bargain basement turnkey social network deal that LL probably expected.

  2. Since LL wants to retain the existing MMO communities on AU, it's going to be interesting to see how they'll handle the COPPA compliance. The site could have quite a substantial number of under-13 users and a lot of existing content making it hard to simply make the site G-rated.

    As for hate speach and inappropriate content, manually moderating a social network with potentially sheer amounts of data that's being created constantly is going to be impossible.

    Most social sites are forced to rely on users flagging inappropriate content (with various success) and I really hope we get some reporting and content flagging tools on AU asap.

    If you ask me, LL shouldn't have rushed with the announcement before taking the time to prepare the site (technically and legally) for the SL community. It's probably why they're so quiet about it lately :)

  3. I agree that it's impossible to monitor social networking sites for hate speech and the like. However, Linden Lab has always made doing this a key component of their TOS for Second Life. I'm just curious as to how they'll deal with it in AU. ;-)


All thoughts are welcome.