Opting Out

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Sometimes, situations and trends change so rapidly that it’s nearly impossible to get your brain wrapped around them, let alone keep it there… so you “go with your gut”. My personal gut has been in a slow churn of nausea about social networks, their integration into other “platforms”, the resulting effect on personal privacy, and the insidious motive of monetization driving it all.

Precisely when “opting out”, instead of “opting in”, became the normal requirement for all those extra services marketers would love to convince you that you need, is lost in the aether of the Web. It began when those fine-print check-boxes at the bottom of online registration forms appeared with the checks already applied — “I wish to receive a newsletter…”, “I wish to receive offers from associated merchant partners…” — with the statistically realistic expectation that enough people would miss seeing them, in the same way that most people (myself included!) skip reading Terms of Service and End-User License Agreements and just say, “OK, yadda yadda, just install the damned software already.”

But… Recent abuses creative applications of the “opt-out” technique, most notoriously perpetrated by Facebook, have renewed my sensitivity to the issue, and my diligence about it. And, in the past week or so, a couple of new developments in the arena of socnets vs privacy have raised my ire to the point of action. Ironically, in my own case there’s a tenuous connection.

United, we fail

Avatars United, that worthless excuse for a social network, which the Lab in its infinite wisdom purchased a few weeks ago, has been shown to be exploitable in two different ways (thanks to Snickers Snook for helping to make the Lab, and the rest of us, aware of iSoz Bioworm’s discovery!).

Just in the last day or two, Snickers (and Toxic Menges, via Twitter) opened my eyes again, to another door AU leaves open to exploitation: the exploitation of children. Alarmist? I started out thinking so, but it’s not just at AU — it’s in Second Life’s own Forums.

Somehow, someone at the Lab has decided — probably with the usual “fingers of the same hand don’t know what each other are doing, let alone right and left hand…” — that the only place the 13-to-18 crowd should not be permitted to mix with the 18+ is on the Grid itself. But hey… right there in the “Preamble” to the Terms of Service the Lab says:

Linden Lab may amend this Agreement at any time in its sole discretion, effective upon posting the amended Agreement at the domain or subdomains of http://secondlife.com where the prior version of this Agreement was posted, or by communicating these changes through any written contact method we have established with you.

They just haven’t gotten around — yet — to posting just how loosely they intend to interpret this clause in Section 2.2:

Linden Lab cannot absolutely control whether minors gain access to the Service other than the Teen Area,

where the Service has already been defined (Section 1.1) to include “the websites and services available from the domain and subdomains of http://secondlife.com”.

Draw your own conclusions about the potential long-term impact of this latest “policy change that isn’t one because we haven’t called it that..yet.” You can even debate it in the Comments here, if you like. As for me: I deleted my Avatars United account this morning.

Something else came up about AU a couple of days earlier… it seems that some people were seeing an increased amount of spam in their email at around the same time that they registered at AU (I suppose that doesn’t include the dozens of strangers sending blind “unite” requests for themselves and their groups). Snickers blogged about that, too; in the process, pointing out a couple of “opt-outs” that were checked “opt-in” by default. Shades of Facebook?

Her suspicion was that account-holders email addresses were somehow able to be “scraped” from the site by someone with the proper tools. Since her original post, someone named MSo Lambert has explained how that’s not possible, and both Yoz and Soft Linden have told her the same (see the comments to that blog). Peter Stindberg took this up, too, and made a very cogent point:

…while being spammed is a nuisance, the bigger threat lies in the unsolicited disclosure of a potential RL email address and thus disclosure of the RL identity.

In other words: Don’t use your everyday email address for your avatar!

I haven’t. Like many of my Second Life friends, Lalo Telling has a Gmail account of his very own, separate from my other emails (3, only one of which points to the identity in my wallet, and I only use that one for employment). And that leads us to…

Buzzkill

On February 9, Google launched a new service called Buzz — which, when I looked at it, appeared to be a miscegenation of Twitter, Plurk, and Facebook. Believe it or not, one of its initial selling points was that you didn’t have to set it up — it automatically appeared on your Gmail page, and everyone you contacted regularly was automatically following you. Cool, huh?

No.

Because until you dug at least two levels deep into the original settings for Buzz, your followers were public. More “opt-out” BS. So many people complained, so quickly and so loudly, that Google fell over themselves apologizing and tweaking the settings. Meanwhile, Canada’s Privacy Commissioner is investigating, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a complaint with the US Federal Trade Commission. I recommend reading the complaint itself (PDF download), if you want the chronological details on the rapid “WTF?” response to Buzz, which spread through the Web at least as fast as Google’s promotional buzz. I also recommend this analysis of Buzz in the greater context of data-mining for economic gain (my soapbox for a couple of months now), by Christian Fuchs of the University of Salzburg. From his concluding paragraph:

Overall, the introduction of Google Buzz shows that there is an antagonism of privacy protection and economic surveillance interests on the contemporary Internet that is dominated by commercial interests.

Wilkommen nach dem 21. Jahrhundert, Herr Privat-Dozent.

I am already tied to the Empire of Google three ways: Gmail, Picasa, and this blog. Until the appearance of Buzz, however, my email address was protected from anyone with an axe to grind who might want to sink it into my head directly… but that’s not the most important consideration! The people with whom I exchange emails are other Second Life avatars who I have come to trust, and who have come to trust me. I refuse to betray that trust.

Fortunately, there’s an easy way to kill the Buzz. It’s in the line of text above the copyright information at the bottom of the Gmail page — ironically, just above the link to Google’s Privacy Policy — “turn off buzz“. I did.

So should you, if you haven’t already… and maybe you should think about an exodus from Avatars United, too.

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Identity "Crisis"

(a review of the literature)
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Readers of this blog (thank you!) should also be reading most, if not all, of the blogs listed down the right margin out of habit, just like I do.  Regardless… Once in a while I feel compelled to single out their words about an important issue.

The issue of the moment (get ready to be unsurprised) is yet another battle in The Fake War: the argument precipitated by the statements of Facebook’s CEO, followed by the actions of FB, regarding the identity of their account holders and the disposition of information.  It has particular impact on the Residents of Second Life for a number of reasons; chief among them being the occasional vague references from the likes of M Linden (CEO of SL) and Hamlet Au about some form of “integration” between SL and FB… as if a mere population increase will solve SL’s problems, rather than exacerbate them.  (That began before Facebook dropped the nuke on privacy — see the list of articles at the end of “Vaporworld” for background).

Along comes Wallace Linden, fresh out of the test-tube, with his inaugural piece on the the official Second Life blog: “Will the Real You Please Stand Up”.

A lot of us have — here are some of the best minds in the SLogosphere, doing just that:

Dusan Writer: “Linking Second Life to Real Life Names”

Snickers Snook: “Real Life, Second Life. Blurring the Lines.”

Honour McMillan: “Connecting Real Life and Second Life – a Personal Opinion”

Dale Innes: “The real me is having a nap, tyvm”

Dio Kuhr: “I am Spartacus — linking real life identities to SL personas”

Emily Orr: “oh, I’m scared of the middle place, between light and nowhere”

and Botgirl Questi, with appropriate humor: “The REAL STORY Behind the Wallace Linden Controversy”

Department of Redundancy Department:  In my “Vaporworld” post below, and in comments scattered around the Web, I have used the phrase the identity in your wallet.  It’s a deliberate reference, not just to your driver’s license but to the other contents of your wallet: cash and credit cards.  The drive to link “real” identity to pseudonyms is what the latest jargon calls “monetization”.  It’s quite simple: data-mining hits a brick firewall if the account name can’t be matched to purchase activity.  Therefore, the data being mined has less resale value, and neither the miners (EquiFax and their ilk) nor their clients (Facebook, ad nauseum) like that very much.  You need look no farther for the motive of the anti-“fake” side of The Fake War.

Speaking of monetization…  Remember this?  Second Life Affiliate Program, which you can use to place an ad for SL on your blog or other website, and receive a whopping U$D 5 kick-back for any Premium memberships initiated by a click-through from your site.  I love the irony that not one of the blogs about SL that I’ve read since that program began displays one of those ads.

Heh heh

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Vaporworld

Or: “Make sure that bandwagon you’re jumping on isn’t actually a hearse.”

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There’s a lot of buzz buzzing around about the growth of virtual economies — that is, the amount of real-world cash converted into them — in spite of the global economic fiasco.  [Here’s an example]  To me, it seems exactly parallel to the near-cliché about the film industry during the Great Depression: people spend what they can on a chance to get their mind off their problems for an hour or three.  But, to paraphrase a different cliché, that particular honey is attracting a lot of flies.

The latest of these announced its presence last week (13 January), through a press release that was quoted more or less verbatim in various places all over the web.  This newcomer has the audacity to call itself “United Nations Citizen” (UNC, hereafter; not to be confused with the excellent institute of higher learning in Chapel Hill), and — in spite of the 5-part joint venture touted — appears to be the brainchild of one Anthony Loiacono, founder and CEO of “Heads & Tails TV”, an independent advertising agency.

I belong to a group called “Transworlders” (there’s a link in the sidebar here, please join if you’re inspired to). We’re intensely interested in — and generally encouraging of — any new entrants into the Metaverse.  That, coupled with the potential of meaningful in-world employment, caused me to take a hard look at what information was available on the site.

There isn’t much. 

Dio Kuhr, cantankerous author of The Ephemeral Frontier (sometimes I think she channels Sam Clemens), did what I agree is an accurate review of the textual content of UNC’s site in her post “Hell is Watching Other People Shop.”  I haven’t a thing to add, except congratulations — you should click away from here and read it, and don’t forget the comments!  Come back, of course — there’s lots more.

Dio’s blog also references a post by Botgirl on the same subject: “United We Consume: New Virtual World Sees Future as Giant Shopping Mall”. Also worth reading — including, as always, the comments, wherein it is revealed by your obedient serpent leopard that the application for employment pretty much requires the applicant to have a Facebook account. We’ll get back to that… but there’s something even more important to consider. Three lines from the bottom is the (unpunctuated) question: “Do you agree to our terms and conditions set forth by United Nations Citizen“. More (and younger) eyes than mine have looked, to no avail: there are no terms and/or conditions posted on that site.

Now, about that Facebook thing… Anyone who cares, by this time, has probably read more than they need to about the evils thereof — and if you haven’t, I’ll put a handy reference list of links at the end of this. Suffice it to say here that their management all but proclaims “Privacy is dead”, and they’ve declared ethnic cleansing against pseudonymous accounts, particularly those in the names of SL avatars, branding them “fake” as if the people behind them didn’t exist.

Let us move past what I call The Fake War — an intentional double pun, since the culture war over being “fake” is itself fake, in a Wag the Dog sense — and examine the real reason behind the push to integrate social networks with virtual worlds in general, and the raison d’etre for UNC: Money.

Two important and revealing clues appear in UNC’s website. The first is the Flash video in the upper right corner of this page. The second is this text:

“EquiFax provides the backend geo-targeting real-time data mining to ensure that content distributed matches the consumer demographics, psychographics and profiling opportunities only available in-world.” [source] [emphasis added]

Can you say “captive audience for 24/7 advertising”? I knew you could…

Can you perceive the irony in using a few seconds’ worth of footage from Minority Report — a work of dystopian science fiction! — as a positive allusion to the putative advantages of this virtual world? Christ, I hope you can.

The motivation for integrating virtual worlds with social networks, and the push from some directions to link avatar identity to the one in your wallet, could not be more clear. It is to extend the reach of data mining about your private life in order to sell you stuff. Predictable? Unfortunately, yes. Ethical? Maybe. Orwellian? It’s got potential…

Distasteful? Absolutely.

Now let’s get back to UNC specifically, and why the subtitle for this rant almost became “The Lame leading the Blind”. There’s a tagline you can find scattered here and there, including in that Flash video: “where faithful friends(R) unite”. Faithful Friends TV is also listed in the press release as one of the five members of the joint venture.  When you look at the website of Heads & Tails TV  (H&T) — the ad agency, remember? — you find that Faithful Friends is one of their clients.  When you go to the Faithful Friends website, you learn that its Executive Producer is Tony Loiacono. Mr. Loiacono’s biography page at H&T also lists him as creator and writer.

I have no reason to doubt that Faithful Friends advocates responsible behavior about pet care, and animal care more generally, and they seem to be tackling ecological issues, too; all of which could be called Good Works.  Look at the clips available on that embedded Flash on H&T’s entry page, and decide for yourself about the production qualities (and the writing…).  It may just be the way the clips are grouped, but I was strongly reminded of Marlin Perkins and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  In other words: good works or not, Faithful Friends is a slick piece of showcasing for their sponsor, Drs. Foster & SmithTM pet care products.  Guess whose client they are?  Now, refer back either to Dio’s blog (where she quotes the promotional copy at length) or to the UNC website itself.  Did you find the passage strongly reminiscent of NeoPets?  Where do you suppose that came from, and whose virtual pet care products will be prominent?

Oh, and just in passing… One of the character voices in Faithful Friends — the dog “Racer” — is done by Jeff Gordon, the NASCAR driver.  Guess whose client he is?  And on this page, there’s a lot of talk about the in-world currency.  It’s called the CONO.  [caps in the original]  Gee… I wonder whose idea that was…

By now, you probably see why the title of this rant is “Vaporworld”.  I seriously doubt UNC will ever hit closed beta, let alone a full launch.  I also have the impression that Mr. Loiacono has never been in a virtual world, let alone done the necessary homework… else he’d know that avatars don’t need food or drink, to say nothing of waitstaff to bring it to the table!  And, as to Dio’s complaints about the copy?  It has to have been approved, if not also written by…

[I think you can finish that sentence yourself ;) ]

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Blog-liography:  Facebook, Privacy, and The Fake War

Facebook’s Zuckerberg Says The Age of Privacy is Over” by Marshall Kirkpatrick, ReadWriteWeb, Jan. 9, 2010

Is Facebook Killing Avatars Again?” by Senban Babii, The Alphaville Herald, Jan. 9, 2010

Facebook’s move ain’t about changes in privacy norms” by Danah Boyd, apophenia, Jan. 16, 2010

Dumbing down may actually work as a strategy for Second Life” and “Second Life stymied by the secrecy of its avatars?“, by Roland Legrand, MixedRealities, Jan. 14 & 16, 2010 respectively.

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