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Linden Lab to alter third-party Second Life viewer policies

Tateru Nino

Yesterday, Linden Lab made an announcement regarding third-party (or after-market, if you prefer) viewers that has so far elicited a vociferous response from some of the more outspoken Second Life users, and those involved in after-market viewer-development. The announcement largely revolves around upcoming policies that have yet to be decided.

This is compounded partly by there being two announcements. One directly emailed out and one on the blog, both of which carry somewhat different information. The announcement is a lead-up to a series of "brown bag" sessions which are advertised to determine the details of the scheme.

As we said, in addition to the announcement on the official blog, a number of people in after-market viewer development have received emails that contain some details not mentioned in the public announcement, and omit some that are.

One of those key portions runs, "but recently some functionality has been developed that is at odds with our Community Standards and Terms of Service. Some of this functionality includes the ability to encrypt chat, copy content in violation of the creator's intent, and collect user data without clear disclosure." [our emphasis]

This is very interesting for two reasons. One is that we're not aware of any such prohibition about encryption in the published Community Standards or Terms of Service, and the other is that the option to encrypt communications has been one of the top 'must have' features for the corporate market.

Being able to encrypt user-to-user communications to prevent snooping (by the platform provider or by anyone else) is a common requirement of many corporate communications policies. As it currently stands, many corporate users tell us that they switch to forms of communication other than Second Life in order to discuss more sensitive business information.

We've asked Linden Lab about this, but have yet to receive a formal response. In any case, the bulk of the announcement approaches the issue of viewers that allow or encourage non-conformant behavior, though it somewhat sidles around any matters of substance.

A problem with identifying non-conformant viewers is that it isn't really possible for Linden Lab to positively identify a viewer that does not wish to be identified. It's like calling someone up and asking them what model of phone they have. Some people will tell you the truth and others won't. There's no way to practically check if the information given is actually correct.

Currently, the official viewer from Linden Lab is capable of masquerading as any other viewer or version. It's a built-in feature in the official code-base, and it is an official feature that is not routinely removed by third-party developers.

Linden Lab talks about the development of a 'viewer registry', "that will allow developers to list their viewer in a third party viewer directory maintained by Linden Lab, identify the features of their viewer, and represent to the Second Life community that it complies with Linden Lab's guidelines for third party viewers."

Some developers already feel – that while this is quite a good idea, overall – that it also risks marginalizing viewers and viewer developers that might disagree with Linden Lab on the specifics of what users might need with respect to viewer features.

There's widespread feeling that Linden Lab might well have less connection to the viewer needs and features espoused by users than third-party developers have. Earlier this year Linden Lab began to erratically attend and then altogether quit the communication sessions it had set up to stay in touch with users about these matters, which has just made the feeling more pronounced. These sessions are now run by third-party developers instead.

"When our revised policy goes into effect, any viewer containing functionality that can be used to impede our efforts to manage Second Life will not be tolerated," says the Lab.

Though, short of throwing yarrow stalks or casting horoscopes it isn't clear how the Lab could even go about detecting those viewers.

The obvious inference to make from this, however, is that any viewer that doesn't appear in the viewer registry as an approved viewer will ultimately be grounds for potential account suspensions or bans – though as yet, Linden Lab has no method of actually identifying any viewer where the user does not wish it to be, including Linden Lab's own official viewer.

Linden Lab is planning a series of discussions (analogous to the ones used to determine content ratings and Adults Only content policies) to work out the specifics. Linden Lab calls them "brown bag" sessions, which is a term in education circles for one-way, or top-down lunchtime lectures without audience participation.

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