Avatar rights issue can divide users, grid owners

The question of avatar rights may seem to simply be a special case of the consumer rights discussion. But the areas in which avatar rights are different from generic consumer rights is where the biggest problems arise.

Many consumers feel that they are in an inferior position – they have little or no say in what goods a store carriers, or what shows a television channel offers. Consumers typically have little control over prices. Businesses usually have the right to refuse to do business with any particular customer.

To address this imbalance to at least some degree, customers have consumer protection laws, and buyer cooperatives.

In many countries, customers are protected against misleading advertising, harmful ingredients, monopoly pricing, and discrimination based on such factors as gender, race, or disability.

In addition, customer-owned cooperatives available in some areas, providing insurance and banking services, or access to healthy foods.

Finally, consumers may have little power as individuals, but as a group they can choose to avoid overpriced products, brands that exploit child labor, and companies with bad customer service.

The special case of avatars

In some ways, however, avatars are special.

If a guy likes to go to a particular bar, for example, and the bar decides to bar him because he was involved in a fight, the guy can continue to see his friends – just not at that bar. And when the guy is kicked out, he doesn’t have to leave his clothes, wallet, and all his possessions behind.

The closest parallel would be that of a social network. If Facebook closes someone’s account, for example, they lose access to their Facebook groups, friends lists, and stored photographs and messages.

In a virtual world, users often don’t have an offline connection to their in-world friends. They will usually have virtual currency in their accounts. And they will have purchased virtual goods, rented land, or started in-world businesses.

Losing access to a virtual world could result in the loss of a substantial investment of time and money and loss of contact with friends, business partners, and customers.

Even without banning an avatar outright, virtual world operators can hurt their users by changing rules arbitrarily, leading to loss of business. They can unilaterally remove items from user inventories, delete groups, shut down regions, close discussion forums, remove currency from user balances, raise prices, and eliminate lines of communication to grid management.

Finally, they can outlaw behaviors that would allow users to protect themselves, such as making inventory backups.

The TOS trap

Some vendors, in an attempt to distinguish themselves from their competitors, might start out by advertising a terms of service – TOS – that is more user-friendly.

Second Life, for example, once promised, “your world, your imagination.”

The problem, of course, is that whatever a company offers voluntarily, it can also take back, via the common phenomenon of “TOS creep.”

At first, the TOS changes are minor and – always, without exception — “for the benefit of our customers.” In order to provide better service and security, the vendors ask their users to give up certain rights. At first, these changes are tiny, hardly worth quitting the platform over. But they add up. At some point the company adds a clause that they reserve the right to change the TOS at any time for any reason.

There might be a backlash from users, and, if it’s big enough, the company might roll back the changes. But, in general, given the choice, most companies would prefer to have more power, rather than less, more control, more freedom to do what they want.

The other side of the rights question

For grid owners, avatar rights presents a whole collection of thorny issues.

For example, how much input should grid users have in the grid’s governance? There’s only so much control that a for-profit, commercial grid can give up. And, at the end of the day, no matter how much lip service they pay to putting the users first, few grid owners will go along with it if the users decide they want something that’s not in the grid’s financial benefit.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. A commercial grid that doesn’t show a profit will eventually close down, when the founders run out of money. And then everyone loses.

The issue of content backups is another big, contentious issue. Individual users would probably prefer to make full backups of all their content, so that they don’t lose anything if the grid has server problems, or if they want to move to a different grid.

But that means that the grid won’t be able to attract high-end merchants that prefer a more controlled environment, and the lack of content will hurt the grid’s marketing efforts.

This is also an issue for corporate grids. When employees leave a company, they typically lose access to all company services – databases, email accounts, corporate social networks, and file sharing sites. That’s because companies don’t want to allow disgruntled former employees to access company documents or networks, or allow former employees to take documents to competing firms.

Another thorny issue is that of appearance. Some grids, especially themed role playing grids, would want to be able to specify what the members look like and what clothing and accessories they can wear. Allowing users complete freedom would disrupt the immersive role playing experience for the other members.

Similarly, corporate grids might want to enforce online dress codes just as they do in their physical offices, especially during official functions or in customer meetings.

Corporate grids might also restrict the ability of avatars to associate with one another for security or compliance reasons. In the financial services, for example, analysts are not supposed to talk to brokers.

Role-playing grids might also want to restrict the freedom of association in some instances, such as not allowing members of warring races to send private messages to one another. And all commercial grids would want to put some limits on communications, to control the load on central services, to reduce spam, and to prevent griefers from deliberately disrupting the in-world experience of other members.

Commercial grids might also be reluctant to allow their members to advertise competing grids, to organize boycotts, or to use third-party marketplaces or currencies.

For small, personal grids the situation is even thornier. If you have a grid, and you invite your friends over, and you have a falling out, you want to be able to kick them off your grid. You probably want to be able to shut the grid down if you get bored with it, or run out time or money to run it. Many grids today are, at their core, just personal projects that may or may not evolve into viable businesses in the future.

So what can individual users do to protect themselves?

One solution: wait for legal action

At some point in the future, consumer protection laws will probably be extended to cover issues of particular concern for users of virtual worlds.

Until then, users on closed commercial grids can protect themselves to some extent by taking the following steps:

  • Keep only as much money in a virtual currency account as they can afford to lose.
  • Whenever possible, buy virtual goods outside of the virtual world, under license terms that would allow the use of those goods in multiple platforms.
  • Merchants can encourage customers to shop via third-party marketplaces or on the merchant’s own website.
  • Merchants can also encourage customers to subscribe to email newsletters, allowing for a second channel of communication in case of disruption in-world.
  • Creators can do their primary building on platforms where they can make regular backups of their work, like personal minigrids (try New World Studio or Sim-on-a-Stick).

A second solution: group-owned worlds

Just like consumers who get together to start food coops, child care exchanges, or community-owned banks, so virtual world users can get together to start their own grids.

Members can connect their own regions, and make decisions collaboratively.

The terms of service can be decided on ahead of time, and require a majority – or supermajority – vote before any changes are made.

Central grid services – user inventories, asset databases, grid maps, currency, groups, messages – can be provided by one of the members. Or members can pitch in and buy grid services from a vendor – Dreamland Metaverse, for example, offers separate centralized grid services for $45 a month. Members then have the choice of attaching home-based regions for free, renting regions from Dreamland, or renting regions from other vendors.

A third solution: private grids

Running your own grid may seem a radical, and expensive, way to get some control over your virtual life.

But it might work in some cases.

As a parallel, say you want to keep your friends updated about what’s going on in your life. Your could use Twitter or Facebook or something similar – but you’d give up control over your posts and photographs, give up some of your privacy, and run the risk of losing everything if these services shut down, or cut off your account for some reason. This would be like having a presence on a closed grid like Second Life, InWorldz or Avination.

Or you could set up a blog on, say, Blogger or Tumblr. You wouldn’t have to pay anything, and you’d have more backup options. Plus, you’d have more control over how your blog looks. This would be like having a presence on a more open grid like OSgrid, Craft or Kitely.

Or you could buy your own domain, rent server space, and set up your own website. You’d have total control over how the site looks, absolute control over your site’s content, and you’d have an associated email account. You would have a permanent online presence. If the hosting company raises prices or the domain registrar goes out of business you would simply move your site to a different host.

Domain names cost around $10 a year, and hosting for a small site or blog starts at between $5 and $10 a month. It’s a little bit of money, but a great deal of control.

How does this translate to virtual worlds?

You would still buy a domain name, or create a sub-domain on one your already own. For example, I own korolov.com, and set up a subdomain at grid.korolov.com for my home OpenSim grid.

You would need a place to host your grid – or you could host it at home.

You can host your website at home, for free, but most people don’t do it because you’d have to keep your computer up all the time, you’d have to set up your security correctly, and your Internet provider has a cap on your bandwidth so your website can’t get too popular. The same applies to home-based grids.

I host my own personal minigrid at home because I don’t mind it if the grid disappears when I turn off the computer, and I don’t want people visiting it when I’m not around, anyway.

Depending on how good your computer is, you should be able to host a minigrid of between four and sixteen regions. Depending on your bandwidth, you should be able to have around five or six guests over. That is plenty for many individuals.

The latest version of the Diva Distro (and related packages, such as Sim-on-a-Stick) allows for hypergrid friendships, groups, and messages. That means that you can easily to keep up with friends on other grids if those other grids are also hypergrid-enabled.

If you want a bigger grid, or you want your grid to be up all the time, or you want to be able to handle more visitors, or you want someone else to set it up and manage it for you, you can rent a minigrid from an OpenSim hosting provider.

Minigrid prices start higher than website hosting prices, but are in line with how much websites cost in the early days of the Internet. As storage and bandwidth and processing gets cheaper, hosting prices will continue to fall. Today, for example, Zetamex is offering a deal where you can get 45,000 prims on a minigrid of up to 16 regions for $40 a month, and a minigrid of up to 15,000 prims and nine regions for $20 a month, with the first month free.

Remember to get plenty of backups. Fortunately, grid hosting vendors typically make it easy for you to download your regions, user inventories, and even entire grids, so you can switch vendors if you run into problems.

Fourth solution: Diversification

I have a profile on LinkedIn for business contacts, on Facebook for family members, and on Twitter for my virtual world-related tweets. I’m also a member of several other social networks, and also have my own personal website, on my own domain. I have a permanent, private email account, a business email account, and a “throw-away” email account on a free email service for those times when I don’t want to give out my real email address.

I’d guess most people do something similar, so that if one online communication service goes down, they have others to turn to.

Similarly, I have user accounts on Second Life and on most of the largest OpenSim grids, but also have a personal home-hosted grid, and a professionally-hosted company grid. I attend meetings and events on the big commercial grids, and keep a basic wardrobe and my standard avatar on each of them.

I do all my building on my own grids, however, so that I can make full backups of everything I do. When I create something that I want to use on other grids – a new hairstyle, for example – I download it as an Imprudence XML export, and then import it to Second Life or other grids. That way, the original is safely stored on my hard drive.

Additional reading

Sarge Misfit at Excelsior Station: Birth Of A Tos

Pam Broviak at Public Works Group Blog: The Metaverse Code

Vanish Seriath at TGIB: Avatar Bill of Rights

Vanish also hosted the avatar rights discussion in the video below.

Maria Korolov