New Policies Have Potential To Hamstring Third Party Developers
by Samantha Lowell
Second Life is in the news again, with a recently announced policy change by Linden Labs regarding Third Party Viewers (TPVs). This new policy may have stifling effects on not only the third party “after market” viewers, but may also drastically impact merchants and content creators grid wide, creating unforeseen threats to personal privacy in the popular online service as well as the platform’s already faltering virtual economy.
Acting in response to concerns about in world tracking of avatars, Linden Lab, creators of the popular Second Life platform, has announced sweeping changes to its formerly live-and-let-live policy regarding TPVs, which were formerly allowed to innovate as they wished, offering features not supported by the standard Second Life viewer so long as they adhered to the Second Life Terms of Service and did not violate core functionality for the viewers used by players to connect to the service.
The new terms forbid TPVs to have any function that tracks another player avatar. Changes will will be rolled out with the next rolling restart of Second life which nerf many of the features upon which much of the online population has come to rely. In a separate but related move, the scripting language may be limited as well. This could spell disaster for content creators and merchants who use these features honestly, as hundreds of legitimate devices involving avatar tracking and related features are suddenly non functional, a serious blow to creators who have invested considerable time and real-world money into their work.
Going one step further, the new terms forbid TPVs from having any feature the base Linden Lab Second Life viewer does not already have. This directly conflicts with the stated purpose of TPV creators, which is to offer innovations and options not featured in the base Second Life Viewer. On occasion, LL has chosen to incorporate these features,like avatar physics. Though LL has stated it encourages innovation and will work with TPV developers, the era of versatility and innovation by TPV developers will be effectively at an end as numerous special features offerd by TPVs, such as Singularity’s role play mode, will suddenly be ended.
The current round of changes traces its roots back to the flap over the now-defunct Emerald viewer, when an item on the Second Life JIRA ticketing system expressed concern over in world tracking of avatars, asking for an opt out on an individual basis. Some say this new policy goes too far, punishing legitimate content creators and merchants. An example of the over-reaching effects of the new policy would be to severely limit the ability of merchants to contact their customers. Second Life users can elect to receive in-world personal messages as emails if they’re offline – but the system caps quickly, meaning many such messages never make it to their intended recipients. Merchants use detectors to sense when customers are online so that the messages are sent only when the customer is certain to receive them, and the workaround for the semi-broken in-world messaging system is vital to the success of Second Life commerce.
One security concern is that these changes might not effect black market viewers used by griefers, which slip under the radar. Unregistered third party viewers would be unregulated by Linden Lab by simply not telling the serrvice’s admins that they’re being used. Linden Lab is already unaware of most of the illicit third party viewers in use today and have no adequate means of differentiating them from legitimate viewers in most cases. This blind spot could allow griefers to be the only ones with the ability to track avatars, putting the legitimate population at risk.
The ramifications of this can be severe and elaborate: one such group calling itself the “Wrong Hands” has spent much of its career breaking into other people’s servers (including ours). One of their big projects was the creation of a massively invasive alt detection database, which they had hoped to pass off as one created by the Justice League Unlimited public service organization within SL. The damage this kind of activity can cause is not limited to the privacy invasion itself, but can have far reaching secondary effects on the community if such information falls into the hands of people who would use it to hurt others.
Still, such restrictions only affect the legitimate users, and would do little to curtail the activities of people with malevolent intent.
The official statement from Linden Lab:
02-24-2012 02:06 PM – last edited on 02-24-2012 02:16 PM
Protecting Second Life users’ privacy and security is a priority, and today, we’ve made some changes to our Policy on Third Party Viewers to strengthen those protections for all users (Section 2.a.iii, 2.i, 2.j).
We’ve also updated the policy to be clearer about the sorts of innovations that developers should work on for their particular Viewers (Section 2.k), and which they should work on in partnership with Linden Lab for all of Second Life. This is so that we can avoid the problems that result when a Viewer changes the way elements of Second Life are defined or how they behave, in such a way that users on other Viewers don’t experience the same virtual reality.
Here are the new sections of the policy:
2.a.iii : You must not provide any feature that circumvents any privacy protection option made available through a Linden Lab viewer or any Second Life service.
2.i : You must not display any information regarding the computer system, software, or network connection of any other Second Life user.
2.j : You must not include any information regarding the computer system, software, or network connection of the user in any messages sent to other viewers, except when explicitly elected by the user of your viewer.
2.k : You must not provide any feature that alters the shared experience of the virtual world in any way not provided by or accessible to users of the latest released Linden Lab viewer.
We encourage Third Party Developers to continue innovating with unique user interfaces, niche features, and ways of interacting with the virtual world, and we look forward to working in partnership with developers on ideas they have for new or improved shared experiences for all of Second Life. We want to incorporate more innovative new features into Second Life to improve the experience for all users, and we encourage TPV developers to submit proposals through our standard process.