The most compelling story tearing its way through the forums, in-world groups, and internet blogs of Second Life users these days is the tale of the “anti-griefer” and “anti-copybot” tool Redzone.
It’s a riveting tale indeed, fraught with drama, rhetorical flourish, and passion. It has villains and heroes (although the identity of these depends upon one’s perspective) and holds forth the promise of a potentially apocalyptic conclusion.
It is also a story founded upon the social dynamics of fear: fear of griefers and of content pirates, working hand-in-hand with a fear of our own vulnerability to public exposure. Despite it's undoubted entertainment value, it is not in fact a very gratifying tale, speaking as it does to this most base and basic of human emotions, and to the willingness of those who value profit above all else to exploit this. But it is also a most instructive little fable, for what we see exposed herein, in perfectly formed miniature, is the model of an unfettered free market capitalism in full throttle.
Redzone is a scripted spyware product created and marketed by the content creator zFire Xue at the not-unsubstantial cost of L$3,999. It is on offer to the content creators and public sim owners of Second Life as a means of 1) detecting “copybot” viewers that can illegally copy content in SL, and 2) identifying “griefers” who may appear in stores, clubs, or other public places to be disruptive. Redzone is classic case of marketing on fear; it first feeds on legitimate worries about content theft and griefing, inflating these concerns into something like panic, and then offering apparent “peace of mind” to those willing to shell out the purchasing price. As the SL Marketplace ad for the product (since removed by its maker) put it:
You may or may not worry about copybots with nothing rezzed for them to steal.
You may not care about griefers with Build or scripts disabled on your land.
What about that social sabotage confidence artist you banned that came back across your ban lines with an alt? (RedZone would have killed them!)
A dramatic little machinima is part of this marketing campaign: it shows a sim overrun by a small army of griefers and copybotters, and demonstrates their detection and rather messy elimination (the banned avatars are replaced by an animation showing “screaming, shattering bones” and bloodstains when the miscreants are “killed”) by means of the device:
This marketing has proven astonishingly successful: according to the manufacturer, there are now over 20,000 copies of Redzone operating within Second Life, which have collectively scanned over 9,000,000 avatars, resulting in parcel bans for over 70,000 residents.
This all sounds very impressive, and would seem to suggest that the device is doing precisely what it claims to do. In fact, however, the claims made about Redzone’s efficacy and accuracy are highly dubious: even Redzone itself claims to have a “hit” rate for copybotters of only 0.024% (i.e., one twenty-fourth of one percent).
Its method of identifying alts may be even less effective and reliable. What Redzone actually does is harvest IP (Internet Protocol) addresses from anyone who comes within scanning range of the device, and who has enabled media and music in her or his viewer preferences. The IP address is the supposedly “unique” number associated with the internet connection that one uses to access Second Life: log in to SL from the same computer using different accounts, and the IP address theoretically remains the same. What this should mean is that one can associate different accounts by identifying their common IP address, thereby proving them to be “alts” of the same user. If Redzone discovers that the avatar being scanned has an IP address matching that of other previously scanned avatars, or has been previously associated with other avatars, it alerts the device owner, who can take appropriate action, normally by banning the resident.
The flaw in this procedure is that IP addresses are by no means stable, nor need any given address be associated with one unique individual. Many internet connections use “dynamic” IPs that change regularly, and it is also not difficult to “spoof” a fake IP. At the same time, users employing a common internet connection may find themselves falsely associated with other users. If you are logging on from work, from a university dorm, or from a Starbucks, you may be sharing an IP with anyone who has done the same. The result is, of course, “false positives” and a very, very questionable degree of accuracy.
But why should the sim owner ban an avatar who is associated with other alts anyway? Well, the reasoning runs something like this: most griefers employ freebie one-off disposable accounts to wreak their havoc, and therefore will generally have many alts associated with their IP address. Ergo, it can be assumed, through a fallacious and deeply troubling abuse of logic, that there is a good chance that any avatar with alts is a griefer. It’s a shoot-first-ask-questions-later response to dealing with a legitimate problem, a fear-driven approach that is based on the reasoning that griefers are scary enough to warrant the collateral damage, consisting of all of those non-griefing avatars who are caught in the shotgun blast. It’s a little like targeting an apartment building with an air-to-surface missile because it shelters a terrorist leader: the broken, maimed, and bleeding bodies of the innocent sifted out through the wreckage afterwards are (of course) merely collateral damage, a “regrettable, but necessary” price that is part of the cost of the vital “war against terror.”
Redzone’s marketing, and the rhetoric of its boosters similarly slides quietly over the potential costs incurred in the use of this device, but an increasingly large body of critics of the device have begun to highlight these in a public campaign against Redzone that has been gathering speed and strength over the past few weeks. No less than three JIRA features have been opened, demanding that Linden Lab disable the device (here, here, and, most imporantly, here); the last of these has attracted a near record number of votes. At the same time, the anti-Redzone movement has spawned dozens of blogs and blog posts, and an exhausting number of threads on the official SL forums (as for example this), as well as other off-world forums. Even within the manufacturer’s own forum, an increasingly vocal opposition has been mounting.
What this opposition highlights is the fact that, while Redzone has marketed itself as an antidote for fear, it has itself generated an enormous amount of panic and alarm. This has much less to do with concern over being banned from sims that employ Redzone (many opponents of the system are actually asking to be banned from such locales, or calling for boycotts of them) as it does with concerns over the existence of Redzone’s enormous and growing database of “alts.” While there are, of course, many people who are quite open about their alts in Second Life, there are a great many more who prefer to keep their various “identities” within Second Life separate. Here is what the new Rod Humble, CEO of Linden Lab, had to say on the subject of avatars and identity in an interview with Dusan Writer:
See, there’s the me who goes to school meetings with my kids and that’s a very well established identity. And there’s the me who plays shooter games online and I don’t want those separate identities to mix up. It’s not appropriate.Now imagine the case of a resident whose “main” is publicly linked, for whatever reason, to her real life identity. Perhaps she is an IT professional, a college or university teacher, or just someone who is normally open about who she is. Imagine what happens when that “main” becomes linked – correctly or, just as plausibly, falsely – to an avatar “alt” whose groups and picks include, say, a number of sex or BDSM groups. What if our straight and conventionally married “main” is associated with an avatar who is experimenting with LGBT? And what if these associations – which, again, may well be false -- become public knowledge in real life?
It is not hard to understand how this obvious threat to privacy within Second Life has generated a great deal of fear and concern: one needn’t be actually involved in “unsavoury” activities to be concerned about the possible ramifications. The fact is that this enormous and potentially damaging database is in private hands, on a web site that is completely outside of the jurisdiction of Linden Lab. How might it potentially be used? Indeed, any Redzone owner is given immediate access to the names of all the putative alts of anyone scanned by their device. Redzone also comes with an optional HUD that can be worn outside of one’s own sim or parcel: it is possible to roam freely anywhere in Second Life and scan anyone within range. The potential for abuse is enormous, and a number of instances of this have begun to come to light, of which this is but one example:
Earlier in this thread, I mentioned a few times that the person whose land I live(d) on has a Redzone on his parcel, for reasons of attempting to keep an old stalker from coming back. He has already outed one alt of mine(for an adult roleplay, at the time I had a child avatar that I used to speak to him), and when I told him it was a creepy and stalkerish thing to do, he said that it was his right to know. This bothered me, but I moved on, since he was still my friend.
Yesterday, he told me that he had been going to sexually themed SIMs with the Redzone hud and scanning the people around him for alts. If he found people with alternately gendered alts, he would out them. In local.
I told him, again, that it was a creepy thing to do and I asked him why he wanted to know these things about total strangers. He said it was just a game to him. I told him some of what I've learned about Redzone, and I linked him to this thread. He became angry when I insisted that what he was doing was wrong. He said that he has his opinions, and I have mine, and not even all the people speaking out against it would make a difference to him.
Meanwhile, criticism of Redzone is liable to evoke threats designed to ratchet up the level of fear: a warning on the Redzone forum notes that one should “Keep in mind most everyone on this channel could be mean enough to ban you, your alts, and your unborn alts forever from somewhere you may later wish you could visit.” Be careful what you say about Redzone, or you could find your Second Life ruined forever.
The escalating level of fear and paranoia among Redzone users themselves is reinforcing this. While Redzone can only effectively scan an avatar who has enabled media or music streaming, the device includes an option allowing one to identify and ban those who have disabled these options, under the assumption that they must, of course, have something to “hide.”
One might think that the growing opposition to Redzone would have the maker of Redzone worried. In point of fact, the fear and loathing generated by his product plays right into his hands, because those who purchase the product can choose to hide their own alts on the database! So, what then is the best and surest way to protect oneself from being victimized by Redzone? Why, to drop L$3,999, and buy one’s own copy of the device!
It will be interesting to see how this intense little drama plays out in the next few weeks or months. One thing is certain: zFire Xue will have made a tidy little fortune from his product, whatever the outcome. Not only has he profited from sales of Redzone to both those interested in identifying, and those wishing to conceal alts, but he also finds himself in possession of an enormous, and potentially very lucrative database. One way of viewing Redzone, in fact, is as the most successful instance of datascraping in the history of Second Life.
What interests me most about all of this, however, is the way in which the dynamics of both the success of Redzone and the growing opposition to it have revealed some of the hidden pulleys and chains behind the Second Life’s paradigmatic free market system. And what strikes me most when I consider this is the relationship between fear and financial success for the enterprising capitalist. Redzone brilliantly leveraged a real concern – about intellectual property rights and griefers – into something like a panic that has convinced thousands of Second Life residents to not merely buy the product, but to accept, apparently without moral qualm, its extremist shotgun approach to those problems. And faced with a wave of apprehension and concern over the effects of his own product, zFire has been able to further exploit the climate of fear, by making Redzone the only effective “antidote” to its own egregious trampling of privacy rights.
The question remains: how did fear become such an effective marketing tool in Second Life? The answer to that question lies in the very nature of the laissez-faire capitalism that characterizes the Second Life economy. Now, it is true (as some have noted) that the Second Life economy is not truly an unfettered free market system: Linden Lab retains control of a number of levers, as for instance the supply of Linden dollars, that allow it to tweak the economy as needed. Overall, however, Linden Lab pursues a largely hands-off attitude to commerce in-world. Its Terms of Service are vague and unprescriptive, and there are few mechanisms by which an individual resident may appeal for “official” redress from scams and rip-offs. It was this hands-off attitude that permitted, for some time before the Lab took action, in-world “banks” to operate what were, in essence, ponzi schemes.
Most significant is Linden Lab’s refusal to intervene in the case of “disputes” between residents, even where these involve significant amounts of cash. Here is the key provision with the Linden Lab ToS that spells this out:
10.1 Linden Lab is NOT liable for its users' actions, and you release Linden Lab from any claims relating to other users.
You agree not to hold Linden Lab liable for the Content, actions, or inactions of other users. As a condition of access to the Service, you release Linden Lab (and its officers, directors, shareholders, agents, subsidiaries, and employees) from claims, demands, losses, liabilities and damages (actual and consequential) of every kind and nature, known and unknown, arising out of or in any way connected with any dispute you have or claim to have with one or more users, including whether or not Linden Lab becomes involved in any resolution or attempted resolution of the dispute.
In effect then, while Linden Lab will intervene in cases of copyright infringement and intellectual property or content theft, it declines to regulate, or be held responsible for, the financial conduct of entrepreneurs, landowners, and content creators with regards to their customers. The motto of anyone doing business in Second Life should always be caveat emptor – buyer beware! At the same time, the Lab’s measures against content theft have been so lackadaisical and ineffective that no one has any faith in the ability of the system to protect them against copybotters.
And it is this failure to regulate or police the economic system within Second Life that is the primary root of the fear into which clever capitalists like zFire Xue have tapped. The failure of the system to protect content produced the vacuum into which zFire inserted Redzone, while the utter lack of faith that most residents have in Linden Lab’s willingness or ability to regulate or disable a product that so clearly infringes upon privacy rights is the cause of the rising opposition to the product, as well as further sales of it. All of these are owing to the nature of the unfettered free market system that Linden Lab has not merely permitted, but encouraged, to grow in Second Life.
Of course, to some proponents of free capitalism, this all seems rather wonderful. Prokofy Neva’s response to my suggestion that Redzone and the moral panic that it has generated is the result of the atmosphere of unfettered capitalism in SL is particularly telling, as she lauds a world in which “products are made and sold freely in the marketplace; where other people make and sell other products to counteract them; and where we have a free press to report on all this.” Capitalism, Prok seems to concede, may have created the “crisis,” but that’s actually a good thing, as we have other capitalists who are more than willing to ride to our rescue by creating “products to counteract them” – at a substantial profit, of course. Crisis? What crisis? It’s really just a glorious business opportunity! And in this way, the “system” need not rely on the natural mechanics of demand: it can generate its own demand by artificially creating a panic from which others, in turn, may profit! Think how much healthier the Second Life economy would be with even more assaults upon privacy!
In her song “The Whore’s Hustle and the Hustler’s Whore,” PJ Harvey speaks of a world of unbridled greed, competition, and fear:
Speak to me of Universal laws
The whore’s hustle and the hustler’s whore
All around me, people bleed
Speak to me your song of greed
Well, we know who the “hustlers” are. And the whores? Well, that would be us, our electronic identities harvested, collected, bought and sold. And what most truly makes us “whores” is that we are willing accomplices to the hustle: we are the ones, after all, who are buying Redzone and its putative remedy, Greenzone, and who are zFire Xue’s active if perhaps unknowing agents in the field, building for him his database of avatars and alts, herding ourselves and our fellows into electronic pens buried somewhere deep in a basement hard drive.
Speak to me of your inner charm,
Of how you'll keep me safe from harm.
I don't think so, I don't see . . .
So, who will keep us “safe from harm”? zFire and his Redzone? The next coder to capitalize upon our fear through the marketing of yet another lucrative scripted gadget, enabled by the very system from which it promises to protect us? Will these save us from our fear?
I don’t think so.