Tuesday, November 03, 2009

FTC Investigating Virtual Worlds

Back in March, as a part of the appropriations process, Congress inserted the following curious language:

“The Committee is concerned about reports of explicit content that can be easily accessed by minors on increasingly popular virtual reality web programs. The Committee directs the FTC to issue a consumer alert to educate parents on the content that is available to children on virtual reality web programs. In addition, no later than 9 months after enactment of this Act, the Commission shall submit a report to the Appropriations Committee discussing the types of content on virtual reality sites and what steps, if any, these sites take to prevent minors from accessing content.”

House Report 110-920 - FINANCIAL SERVICES AND GENERAL GOVERNMENT APPROPRIATIONS BILL, 2009. According to reports, the FTC is hard at work researching and preparing a report on virtual worlds. The report is due to Congress December 11. It does not appear that there was a request for comments to the public.

Members of Congress have previously expressed concern over youth access to adult content in virtual worlds. Member of Congress Mark Kirk sent a letter to the FTC is the Spring of 2008 asking for a consumer alert warning of the dangers of virtual worlds.

Kirk said he knew of no cases in which children were targeted by sexual predators on Second Life, but he said he considers the virtual world an emerging danger.

. . . .

"If you ask: Do you know about MySpace? The average parent will say yes," Kirk said. "But the average parent doesn't know anything about Second Life."

Linden Lab has two virtual districts, one for people 18 and older and one for users age 13 to 17, but company officials have acknowledged it is possible for adults to get into the teen district and for children to get into the adult district, according to news accounts.

In January 2009, the FTC released its Consumer Alert, Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks. As the FTC noted, a key problem is the lack of age verification online. The FTC's advice was a similar refrain:

How can you help your kids avoid content — or virtual spaces — that may be inappropriate for them? Start by talking to them about where they're going online — and how they're getting there, if not through the family computer. Help them understand that personal information about themselves, family members, and friends should stay private; you also can talk to them about avoiding sex talk or sexual situations online.

If your child visits a virtual world, you may want to check it out, too. Get to know what's on the site, the privacy protections it offers, and how it verifies the ages of site visitors.

If your child gets really interested in online gaming or virtual worlds, watch for changes in their patterns of behavior that could indicate an unhealthy obsession. Nobody knows your child better than you do, so you're best placed to know what sites may be appropriate for your child.

The FTC refers parents to its OnGuard Online project for additional information.

Second Life, one of the premier virtual worlds, has created a parallel virtual world, Teen Second Life, for kids age 13-17.

A lot of this issue turns on age verification. Some media reports indicate that the FTC will recommend age verification requirements. However previous examinations of age verification have concluded that it is a very problematic issue. The COPA Commission stated

  • Use of a credit card verification system to access harmful to minors material can be effective to protect minors from accessing some harmful to minors material. A large number of sites operated by the commercial online adult content industry use this system now, but they may still make some images available for free.
  • This system's limitations include the fact that some children have access to credit cards, and it is unclear how this system would apply to sites outside the US. It is not effective at blocking access to chat, newsgroups, or instant messaging. Delay in billing means that unauthorized access to harmful to minors materials could occur.
  • Credit card systems are readily available, but it may be difficult or burdensome for small or non-commercial sites to implement card verification systems. This system would make some content inaccessible to those users without credit cards.
  • This approach imposes moderate costs on consumers and other end-users, who must have a credit card and accept risks in providing it to sites. This approach imposes high costs on publishers, who must pay to verify cards. Use for verification without putting through a charge is viewed with disfavor by the credit card industry.

Parry Aftab reported noted that age verification based on credit cards would create barriers to online access and interactivity, discriminating against those without credit cards.

Government Activity