Thursday, September 13, 2007

Second Life Pitfalls -- whoa, nelly!

It isn't posted online yet, but the Sept. 14, 2007 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Careers section, contains an article, "Second Thoughts About Second Life: Will you be held accountable for requiring students to enter a virtual world filled wtih online harassers?," by Michael J. Bugeja. Click on the title for this post the read the article online.

The author notes the following possible issues that could lead to institutional liability when educators require students to attend meetings, classes, events or do projects on Second Life (or other virtual worlds):

1. Harassment or griefing. He notes an incident in which Ohio University's Second Life campus was attacked by an avatar shooting at folks, shortly after the real world Virginia Tech shootings. While avatars cannot be killed or injured, the people behind the avatars can be traumatized. (see this OTJ post on Cyberbullying).

2. Virtual Worlds' service terms may be in conflict with an institution's grievance or disciplinary processes. So your students' avatars may not be dealt with according to your institution's due process standards.

3. Administrators (like bursars, risk managers, general counsel) may not realize that professors, departments, schools have agreed to and/or required students to agree to a third party's terms of service.

4. There may be difficulties getting reimbursements or POs signed for expenditures like buying land to build online campuses and buildings, or other items. Such purchases also open the institution to potential liability, and require disagreements between parties to be resolved under the "rules" or "laws" of the virtual world -- or perhaps under the lack thereof. And while the world is virtual, there is real money exchanged for the virtual goods -- Linden dollars exchange at 270 Lindens for 1 US dollar.

5. The law is very unsettled about jurisdiction, choice of law or enforcement procedures where the real world intersects with virtual worlds. Nobody knows the answers at this point.

You can see an article on Second Life rape and another on "age play," at Wired.com. "Age Play" is the term for child avatars having sexual relations with adult avatars. The ages of the actual people behind the avatars need not correspond to the avatars' apparent ages (or species or gender or race, size or any other appearance factor). The intersections of real with virtual are only just developing, and institutions that require students to go into virtual worlds may be liable for exposing them to trauma or fraud, and have no way to control the environment or settle the dispute.

Linden Labs, the creator of Second Life gives itself the "right but not the obligations" to resolve disputes among avatars. They also exepmt themselves, shareholders, etc. from claims, demands and damages of every kind, as a condition of access to Second Life. Linden does not try to exercise control over content and its most recent effort, in regard to the "age play" issue, resulted in rebellion from the Second Life residents (see the Wired.com article above).

I am as excited and intrigued as anybody with Second Life and other virtual worlds. But establishing an official institutional pressence and especially requiring (or even inviting) students to participate may be more than any of us bargained for. Intriguing and sobering article. Just ask yourself, would your university or institution defend you in court if a suit resulted from activities online? See the author's letter asking Linden Labs about these issues at Linden's website for questions.

1 comment:

Gxeremio said...

What kinds of suits against a school would hold water in these instances? Second Life should be treated as other field trip or outside-of-class experiences, and similar precautions would go a long way in reducing schools' liability to lawsuits like the ones Bugeja is worried about. I posted a response to his article (from a K-12 standpoint) on . I welcome your comments.