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12:56pm on Monday, 17th November, 2008:

Change for the Better


Back in 2003, a bunch of legal academics and a bunch of academic-friendly virtual world developers got together in New York at the first State of Play conference.

I was at first apprehensive. Few of the lawyers played virtual worlds, and most were completely new to the field. Having seen what social scientists did when they first encountered virtual worlds, I was concerned that the legal theorists might determine to understand the issues in ways convenient to their own agenda and not think through what the consequences would be. As this was the first conference along these lines, there was a fair chance that it could lay down the foundations of the legal study of virtual worlds; should it reach the wrong consensus, future laws concerning virtual worlds could have been very damaging.

This worry remained for some time. People seemed keen to lay out the issues, but left the solutions open. The first real glimmer of hope came from Yochai Benkler of Yale Law School, whose excellent overview took as a given the fact that virtual world developers and players had no fewer rights than people in general; just because it was a game world, that didn't mean the government could happily stomp all over it for not fitting current laws very well.

The tipping point for me, though, was a talk by Susan Crawford, then of New York Law School. She was talking about virtual identity (Who's in Charge of Who I Am?), and asked whether people needed a separate "law of identity" to protect their virtual incarnations from organisations (particularly developers and operators) who could erase them at will. My heart was sinking as she laid out the issues, because this is an argument that is usually political (plucky players standing up to the mighty developer machine). I'd heard it before from sociologists at conferences — they were keen to be seen to support the little guy, but were almost willfully ignorant of the consequences of so doing (ie. no virtual worlds). It's usually pitched as a conflict between the reputation and relationships embodied in an in-world character and the cruel developers who would take it away on a whim.

However, as her assessment reached its climax, Susan said something that astonished me: that no, there shouldn't be such a law. It was (from my perspective) the right answer. She then explained why, and her discussion was absolutely spot on. She understood. She'd reached the right conclusion for the right reasons. I was both astounded and overjoyed. These were people who thought long-term, and whose reasoning could be trusted. Whatever future, high-level decisions they did inform would be the result of proper deliberation and an attempt to understand the wider consequences, not gut instinct.

As a result of this, I gained a lot of respect for the legal academics I met, which I have to say has not over the years proven to be misplaced. Susan Crawford, of course, is a particular favourite. I was very pleased when she was elected to the board of ICANN, and her enthusiastic advocacy of net neutrality reinforced my view that she's a class act.

Anyway, last week Barack Obama appointed Susan as a leader on his Federal Communications Commision review team.

Jeez, if he keeps up with this kind of quality appointment, maybe we will see the change he's been promising?

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).