Chris Simpson

Semper letteris mandate

Congressional hearings held in land of make-believe—also in Second Life

markey-congressional-hearing-second-life

Congressman Ed Markey in Second Life, chairing the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications.

When Congressman Ed Markey, the Democratic representative from Massachusetts, wasn’t able to make it to the Bali Climate Summit last December, he did what an increasing number of corporate leaders were already doing: he created a Second Life avatar and attended via the virtual world. Markey was so impressed with his experience that he declared, “It won’t be my last.” True to his word, he recently returned to Second Life, this time in the company of his fellow congressmen.

Sort of.

When the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications opened April 1 to investigate public safety issues involving virtual worlds, Markey, with the help of Linden Lab, IBM, and a non-profit technology firm, was able to preside over both the real-world chambers and the duplicate, virtual chambers. He was joined in-world by a couple of fellow congressmen, and a handful of Second Life residents who gathered to observe the proceedings.

By means of screens set up in both chambers, avatars and flesh-and-bloods were able to see and communicate with each other across the two ‘verses. As an added bonus, comments by the avatars were visible at the bottom of the real-world screens (“There’s another softball question”).

It was Markey’s avatar who pounded the gavel and officially opened the meeting.

While some legislators seemed disconcerted by the presence of wings and antlers among the observers, others opted for a more light-hearted approach. Mike Doyle, a Democratic representative from Pennsylvania, took the opportunity to parade the Simpsons-inspired avatar his staff had made for him, while Cliff Stearns, the Republican representative from Florida, told Chairman Ed Markey, “I must say you are younger and in much better shape in your second life than you are in your first.” Markey agreed, saying, “My avatar actually looks like he’s been working out.”

After a time, however, the committee got down to the business of investigating the security issues posed by virtual worlds, most especially those involving terrorism.

Philip Rosedale, the founder of Linden Lab, was among the experts called to give testimony. When questioned about the possibility of using Second Life to launder money for terrorist activities, Rosedale told the committee that the average exchange from Lindens currency to U.S. currency was one dollar, and that any transactions involving more than $10 were closely scrutinized. Far from being a breeding ground for terrorist financial dealings, he pointed out, it was likely “that virtual world activities are somewhat more policeable and the law somewhat more maintainable within virtual worlds.”

“We have managed to maintain a fraud rate that is a fraction of a percentage point,” he said. “The industry average is closer to 1 percent.”

Jane Harman, the Democratic representative of California, called attention to a provocative British newspaper article speculating that Islamic extremists might use Second Life for recruitment and training purposes. Rosedale admitted that while “there has certainly been discussion” about such concerns, “we have never seen any evidence that there is any such activity going on in Second Life,”

It wasn’t all terrorists and money laundering, however. The committee also explored the possibility of pedophiles exploiting Second Life for their own purposes. Rosedale, said that he takes “child protection very seriously,” and that Teen Second Life (for kids 13 to 17) bars adults. Furthermore, as with chat rooms and other social networks, he was quite sure that more than a few avatars were created by police and other agents to keep an eye on such illegal actions.

“Once a sexual predator gets into a virtual world, how are you going to find him?” asked Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., a former state trooper. Rosedale defended Second Life saying that it uses credit card and telephone information for age verification and has actively involved the FBI in investigations. While acknowledging that there was “only so much you can do,” he added teens are encouraged to “actively identify and warn us about anyone’s language and behavior that might suggest they’re not teenagers.” This “vigorous self-policing by the residents” was confirmed by Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium.

“I think the strongest asset against [harmful] activity is the residents themselves who would simply stand up as one if they saw things of real concern,” Johnson said. “They’re not shy about what they see in that world if they don’t think it’s proper behavior.”

Not all of the legislators were obsessed with danger. Anne Eshoo, a Democrat from Palo Alto, talked about the “endless possibilities” afforded by sites like Second Life and reminded her colleagues that “not long ago social networking was seen as outside the mainstream.”

Even Cliff Stearns admitted that he saw no reason for regulation, at least for “right now.” And although he had earlier teased Markey on his fit, young-looking avatar, he couldn’t help seeing a possible silver-lining in Markey’s fascination with Second Life. “If you begin to enjoy the virtual world too much, you may not want to return to the real world,” he told him. “In that case, I’d be more than happy to run this subcommittee in your absence.”

But despite all the talk about virtual terrorists staging in-world jihads and the presence of observers with wings, antlers and morphing capabilities (one avatar turned into a bee towards the end of the hearing), the most surreal moment was actually supplied by John Shimkus, the Republican representative from Illinois. Shimkus became annoyed at the suggestion that the United States was not keeping up with Europe in its broadband penetration.

“I’m ticked off about us being compared to Europe,” he said. “You can drive across Europe in five hours. I can’t drive across the state of Illinois in five hours.”

Those European cars must be awfully fast.

Originally published in the Metaverse Messenger, 2008

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