Freedom, Privacy, Property and Personal Security
in Avatar Cyberspace
a proposal submitted and accepted in September 1996
for the Seventh Conference on Computers, Freedom and Privacy, in Burlingame, CA.
by Bruce Damer, Consortium Co-Director
A new frontier has opened on the Internet: the virtual world. Virtual worlds combine visual virtual reality with text-based electronic community such as MUDs and chat environments. No longer limited to just an email address or alias handle, people can now represent themselves visually in a digital costume called an "avatar" and travel through two and three dimensional landscapes spreading out across the Internet. The new citizens of these worlds communicate in text and voice, engage in shared learning and collaborative work and build simple structures or entire virtual worlds of their own. This "avatar Cyberspace" is growing rapidly, with total user population in mid 1996 exceeding 250,000.
We will begin the session with a guided tour of several virtual worlds running live on the Internet and review numerous cases from the two year history virtual worlds which raise serious questions of freedom, privacy, property and personal security. Some of the virtual worlds and cases to be demonstrated (and the world providers) include:
- Vandalism of "private" property and the rise of community law enforcement in the AlphaWorld cityscape (Worlds Incorporated)
- Theft in the virtual economy of WorldsAway (Fujitsu and Compuserve)
- Bodily and verbal assault of people in-avatar in Onlive's Utopia (Onlive! Technologies)
- Gender deception and pornography in The Palace (The Palace Inc./Intel/Time Warner)
- Freedom of expression versus exclusion or banishment by world operators (in all virtual worlds)
We will conclude the session by posing a series of open ended questions and soliciting audience input.
The virtual worlds medium inherits many of the same issues of freedom and privacy discussed at past CFP conferences. However, the virtual worlds medium creates some new twists:
- When is anonymity better than accountability in inhabited avatar Cyberspace?
- Is an attack on your avatar or your homestead an attack on your person?
- Japanese users build an ultramodern virtual city that encroaches on an Israeli Rabbi's digital temple, how should this dispute be resolved and could or should it involve government or NGOs?
- Can the Rabbi protect the unique character his digital temple by trademark or copyright to prevent it against complete or partial duplication in other worlds?
- How will community norms evolve toward a public policy in a multi-lingual, globe-spanning Terra Digita?
- When governments identify this as a new jurisdiction how will they attempt to regulate it?
- Virtual worlds inherit their many-to-many and collaborative nature from the general Internet but provide a much more visible challenge to traditional broadcast media, how will media respond?
There are far more questions surrounding this medium, and we expect that the CFP97 attendees will quickly expand on this list.
End of session proposal.
Further Background Information on the Consortium
The Contact Consortium was formed in early 1995 as a non-profit forum for the emerging medium of virtual worlds on the Internet. Providing our extensive academic expertise in the sciences of human communities to the builders of virtual worlds, we hope to enrich this powerful new medium of human contact. We are serving as a neutral forum for the development of standards and the discussion of technical and social issues arising in the "avatar Cyberspace" of virtual worlds. Lastly, we carry out extensive trans-national exercises and research in the medium, having built and administered a virtual village, hosted social gatherings and constructed a virtual university campus. More information about the Consortium, its activities and membership can be found at http://www.ccon.org.
Member and other companies participating in our educational and research programs currently include:
Intel, Phillips, Nortel, Worlds Incorporated, Black Sun Interactive, Microsoft, Fujitsu, America Online, IDS, Construct, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Software, The Palace Inc., Match.com, Paragraph International, 3rd Dimension, DimensionX, and others.
Biography of the presenter
Bruce Damer is a founding director of the Contact Consortium, a key forum and standards body for virtual worlds on the Internet. He is author of Avatars, Addison Wesley Longman (1997) and a featured speaker on social issues in avatar Cyberspace at conferences such as ACM CHI, CSCW, SIGGRAPH, MediARTech, the American Association of Anthropologists and other venues. He has written numerous articles on the subject and appears on radio and television.
(c) Copyright Bruce Damer
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