Time is running out

Mandatory ISP filtering in Australia continues to rear its ugly head. In his first address to the IT industry, Labor’s Communication Minister, Stephen Conroy, continued to talk up the filtering plan.

“Labor has never argued that ISP filtering is a silver bullet solution, but it is an important step in the overall strategy to make the internet a safer place for children,” Conroy said.

Although he acknowledged ISP level filtering could potentially affect Internet speeds, Conroy added little else to quell concerns surrounding the issue, other than to say there would be a trial process to iron out any technical anomalies.

“I can assure you that we will go forward through an informed, consultative and considered process to ensure that a workable solution is found,” Conroy said. “This evening, I ask the industry to continue engaging with the Government and with my Department to ensure that we achieve an outcome for ISP filtering that meets the needs of industry and the wider community.”

And then there are these excerpts from the Hansard on 18th February 2008:

(page 119)
Senator FIELDING—Perhaps I could direct a question to the minister in parallel with that question while they are coming back with that. The question revolves around the communications powers in section 51(5). The question was about public libraries in Australia, local libraries. It was referred to as being a state issue, of which I am fully aware. But the department has used, I think at maybe even the minister’s request, section 51(5) of the communications powers in regard to gaming when looking at states’ online gaming industries, and the federal government stepped in and used those powers. I asked a range of questions about why the minister could not direct the use of those same powers in directing local libraries to those at state level to use filters, rather than their saying they could not do that. In other words, at the federal level we intervened on internet gaming, but we seem reluctant to use those same powers to address internet filtering at the state library level. The advice came back that, yes—
Senator Conroy—I appreciate the answer given by the previous government. As you would know, our policy that we have been advocating is that these would be mandatory in libraries. We probably have a different approach from the previous government’s.
Senator FIELDING—Will you be using those communication powers under section 51(5) of the Constitution that were used federally, not by this government but by the previous government, on gaming? Will you use that to ensure that the state libraries use the filters?
Senator Conroy—As you know, this is a process that we are developing at moment. We will be consulting the state and territory governments about the implementation of our policy. We will be taking advice on the best way to achieve the mandatory filtering in libraries. That is an option that will be part of that consideration. Unlike the previous government, which was opposed to this aspect of the policy, as you know well, it is certainly something we are prepared to consider.
Senator FIELDING—The federal government can intervene, as we have seen in the last few years, where there is a matter of urgency and when the states may not have been able to do things themselves. We have used those powers before. I do not think it is acceptable even at federal level to assume that kids can walk in off the
street and go to their local library and have access to internet pornography. I think that is absurd. Most families would find that confusing. I placed a question on notice and got an answer back that, yes, they did rely on those constitutional powers under section 51(4) for gaming. I thank the government for those answers, albeit it that they were awfully late. We should be directing the states and using those powers to filter internet pornography.
Senator Conroy—As I have said, we are pursuing a different approach. And we will certainly consider that as part of our deliberations on the best way to achieve the outcome of our policy.

(page 125)
Senator BARNETT—Would you confirm your commitment to mandatory ISP filtering?
Senator Conroy—That is the stated policy. As you have seen, I have been out there campaigning for it.

(page 128)
Senator BIRMINGHAM—We have obviously covered the testing that is taking place already on mandatory ISP filtering. What work is being done on the scope of blacklist?
Ms O’Loughlin—We are currently looking, in line with the government’s policy, to expand the ACMA blacklist. We are currently investigating ways in which we can do that. At the moment we are talking to our international organisations that we deal with, particularly hotlines that deal with child pornography sites, and we are discussing with them the capacity to get some of their international sites on to our blacklist as well.
Senator BIRMINGHAM—How wide is the brief for this blacklist?
Ms O’Loughlin—At this stage, that is where we are looking at, but we are also talking to the government about how wide they want the blacklist to go.

How wide they want the blacklist to go. Given that Labor’s stated policy is to “prevent Australian children from accessing any content that has been identified as prohibited by ACMA”, and that ‘prohibited’ has a specific legal meaning, I’d say it’s, oh, fairly wide. Bodes well for us, huh? I think it’s well past time I got off my own butt and started contacting my representatives.

If you need more information about Labor’s plans for playing unwanted net-nanny to the entire nation, libertus.net has a very good write up, and has good articles about censorship in Australia in general.

Published in: on February 24, 2008 at 2:38 am  Leave a Comment  
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This post is restricted. Please contact your ISP for access.

Australia, as you may or may not be aware, has some of the most repressive censorship laws in the western world. We just happen to be fortunate that law enforcement, by and large, see enforcing our draconian legislation to be an utter waste of time and money. What is deeply concerning is the level of censorship is getting worse. Quickly.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority has just released new rules for ‘age restricted internet and mobile content’ that will take effect on January 20th. To say that they are both onerous for all parties and highly intrusive is an understatement. Here’s the gist, in handy point-format:

  • “The new Restricted Access Systems Declaration places obligations on all content service providers to check that individuals accessing restricted content provided in Australia are at least 15 years of age for MA15+ content or 18 years of age for R18+ content. ” Note that they say provided, not hosted. Fortunately, they have no hope in hell of forcing content providers based offshore into complying. Less fortunately, Labour has a plan to counter this.
  • “Similar to previous obligations relating to stored content, the new rules provide that after receiving a complaint and investigating internet or mobile content, ACMA may require the content service provider to either remove the content or place the content behind specified access restrictions.”
  • “A prohibition on X18+ and RC content.” X18+ is the rating for porn, even straight up, heterosexual missionary sex.
  • “Providers of hosting services, live content services, link services and commercial content services to have in place access restrictions if providing R18+ and commercial MA15+ content”
  • An access control system must “limit access to the content through use of a PIN or some other means”
  • “The acces control system must make provision for the keeping of records to demonstrate how the age of the applicant has been verified in relation to each applicant who has been granted access to r18+ content.” These records must “be kept for two years starting on the day in which the record is made”.

Bad enough, right? Now go and combine this with the mandatory ISP filtering legislation federal Labour is itching to introduce, and the picture becomes bleak indeed, not to mention a colossal waste of time and money. If children need to be protected so badly from the dangers of the interweb, why don’t we just make it illegal for individuals under 15 to surf without parental supervision?

Published in: on December 26, 2007 at 2:12 am  Comments (3)  
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Second Rate

Every time I see the words ‘Second Life’ and ‘Library’ used in conjunction with each other, I die a little inside.

As you may have guessed, I’m writing about this because I’ve been dying inside a lot lately. The primary culprit has been what came out of Internet Librarian 2007. Various people have been merrily blogging away from inside the conference and, to my sad surprise, there has been quite a bit of chatter about Second Life, including at least one presentation devoted to it. But the straw that broke my silence was Online Outreach session, which, according to the Shifted Librarian, started off with the following gem:

Name 3 places your library should be on the web besides your library’s website
From audience:
1. Second Life
2. MySpace
3. Flickr

Ye gods. Where to begin?

First off, unless your library’s website is – and this is rare in my experience – great or even just plain good, there is no ‘besides’. You should not be worrying a whole lot about your online presence elsewhere until your own house is in order, plain and simple. Your website is the place that all those other social sites are going to refer back to. If it looks terrible and has poor functionality, what, exactly, is the point of having a beautiful Second Life island (though I sure as heck don’t know why you’d want one) or an awesome MySpace page (if such a thing is actually possible)? It’s just going to turn your users and your potential users away.

Now, seeing as I’m sure everyone who was attending that particular presentation has an absolutely killer site that would leave me in awe were ever to visit it, I’d like to look in on the misplaced priorities the above list seems to indicate. Second Life should not be at the top of that list. It, in fact, should not be anywhere near the list at all.

The fascination the library industry seems to hold with this particular virtual world both disturbs and disappoints me *. This is because, and let me be blunt here folks: Second Life sucks. It’s not the future. It’s not really even the present. I would tender that there are exactly three reasons it gets so much play, particularly from various media outlets.

  1. It’s a lot easier to explain to the uninitiated what Second Life is and how it works than something like, say, World of Warcraft (WoW). The former is a virtual dollhouse or sandbox game, with direct parallels to real life. The latter is an MMORPG which offers more structured play and is more akin to Dungeons and Dragons (only it’s much more repetitive).
  2. People are fascinated by the much-touted idea of owning virtual real estate. Not that this is not a new concept either; the daddy of modern virtual worlds, Ultima Online has been doing this since 1997, and I’m sure we could find some granddaddy MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon) or MUSHs that did it too, if on a smaller, more primitive scale.
  3. On a slow news day, it’s relatively quick and easy to write up a piece about how player x built the world’s first virtual car dealership in Second Life and make is sound important.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I agree that libraries need a strong digital presence. I’ve also been known to play around in virtual worlds for fun and profit (more of the former than the latter, it must be said). It’s just that I very much doubt that Second Life is a worthwhile place to be focusing library resources. It suffers from usability issues – the utterly unintuitive camera system and clumsy inventory management mechanism immediatly spring to mind. It also labours under a host of technical problems, not the least of which is an outdated engine and a lack of scalability. It’s increasingly becoming dominated by marketers and advertisers and business interests; corporate space, rather than public or even private space. But all of that would be forgivable if it were popular enough. You can, for example, get away with establishing a presence on MySpace because it’s wildly popular in spite of its (many) flaws. But Second Life is not popular enough to justify spending large amounts of time and money establishing a presence there.

What may not realise is that when Linden Labs say that they have almost 10 million registered accounts or ‘residents’, this does not mean that 10 million people play Second Life. This is an inflated number that discounts the fact that each real person – each unique user – can have multiple accounts, and does not factor in how much each account gets used. Put another way, this means that you’re considered part of that 10 million if you’ve ever created an account, even if you only logged in once for half an hour. If you created five accounts, all five are seen as part of that 10 million, even though they’re all owned and used by the same person. Their week-to-week amd month-to-month stats suffer from this same conceit – they count ‘residents’, not actual, individual users.

So, how many people actually play second life then? Various estimates put their real user base at but a fraction of that 10 million, and their number of active users (individual people who have used the service in the past 30 days) at between 200,000 and 300,000. While I don’t have statistics on this, I’d be willing to bet good money that a noticeable percentage of those 200,000 are corporate shills or educators of varying stripes – that is, people who are paid to be there.

Now, once upon a time this figure of 200,000 would not have been a bad set of numbers for an MMO/virtual world. But ‘once upon a time’ was pre-World of Warcraft. WoW now claims 9 million subscribers world wide**. Second Life also falls short in the concurrency stakes (the number of users in a single game world at any one time), a prize which goes to Eve Online, a game that claims a mere but realistic 200,000 users. Oh, and Eve also allows players to own things in game, has a limited out-of-game transaction system and has such a complex economy that the developer just hired an economist to help them keep it ticking over.

Be realistic: how many of your users and potential users play around with Second Life? How many of them are even aware of what it is in more than a vague, ‘seen it on the telly’ kind of way? How many of them have both the computing power and level of internet access needed to run it? And how many of these people are going to want to download the client to talk to you, particularly when their current set of instant messaging programs will get the job done with far less hassle?

“But Second Life is the way of the future!” I hear the people cry. “Just because it’s not really popular right now doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be!” I hate to break it to you, but it’s in its fourth year of existence. If it were going to get wildly popular, it would have done so by now, especially with all the unwarranted media interest. And yes, while 3D social networks may well be the way forward, Second Life is not the future, given form. We’re still waiting for the killer virtual world social application to arrive – the true ‘metaverse’ of Snow Crash that is good looking, deep and, above all else, fun and intuitive to use. Keep a weather eye out for it. My money’s tentatively on google right now.

“If not Second Life, then what, oh wise one?” you ask? Well, as you might have gathered from my earlier talk on getting your website in order before all else, I like fundamentals. Kill time waiting for the killer app by learning to love major instant messaging clients. Download Trillian or another program that connects to multiple IM services (or use meebo), sign up for library accounts on each supported one, then log on and stay logged on. Get all of your staff members to do the same, and get chatting. Get your users’ IM account details as signup and be sure to add them to the library account promptly, and be sociable if they decide to interact with you. It’s all free, cheap and easy, can be integrated into your website, and doesn’t waste a lot of your time if your users don’t take to it. Already got a killer site with an awesome, intergrated OPAC and superb IM reference service? Now you can go and play around with Facebook as much as you want.  Just don’t touch Second Life.

*It also occasionally infuriates me, but this, I’m, told, is a Character Flaw.
**A figure you should, as with any developer statement, take with a grain of salt. While closer to reality than what Linden Labs uses, it is still not an accurate estimate of the number of unique users.

Published in: on November 10, 2007 at 4:10 am  Comments (3)  
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