This is an interview between Amy Wilson (aka Amy Freelunch), and Svetlana Mintcheva (Libertad Lane) Director of Arts Advocacy at the National Coalition Against Censorship. Svetlana has been involved in forming an in world version of that organization (the Virtual Coalition Against Censorship).

Q. There seems to be a lot of acceptance in the SL community that an entity like Linden Labs is a corporation and – the logic goes – corporations have the right to take steps to protect themselves from litigation or to generally do things that are considered “good” for their business. Can you talk about this attitude a bit? Are there problems inherent in its acceptance?

As a private corporation, SL does not have First Amendment obligations to respect freedom of speech and, you are right, it has the obligation to turn a profit, which includes not getting into expensive lawsuits. Does that mean that any restrictions on speech in SL are the status quo we should get used to? I don’t think so for a number of reasons.

First, the internet is in its legislative infancy – laws regulating conduct on the internet are just now being developed. One may imagine that new regulations would come to apply to virtual environments, which, while privately hosted, are so densely populated that they come to resemble company towns where civil rights – including freedom of speech – are protected in spite of private ownership. The more so as environments as Second Life are really collective products, even if the platform is provided by a private entity.

Second, restricting speech ––such as putting black rectangles on a nude sculpture in Burning Life – is just not in the interest of the corporation, which thrives on the basis of the efforts of a creative community. At this point the absence of real competition plays in SL’s favor, the moment such competition appears, its TOS would need to be reconsidered.

Surely, the laws determining liability regarding the behavior of its players need to be clarified, but, it seems to me that SL should not carry liability for what its residents say or do, especially given its separation of adult and teen SL. If it does carry liability, it is likely that SL administrators will err on the side of caution and limit a lot of material that is legally protected, at least in the U.S.

Still, it seems to me that, as it purports to be wary of legal liability, SL is even more concerned about bad publicity – witness the excess of caution evidenced in the exclusion of SL family photos from SL5B. But bad publicity goes both ways, and SL’s profits are bound to suffer if it gains the reputation of a heavily policed virtual environment where one cannot express one’s imagination if that imagination happened to produced anything unsanctioned by the mainstream. I have noting against a clean and polite world of Stepford wives, but how long could such a world remain interesting?

Q. Is there a comparison between, say, the service that SL provides and the service that AOL provides to its email/internet customers?

An ISP service like AOL enjoys qualified immunity in respect of third party provided material hosted on the ISP’s servers – i.e. it is not obliged to police its customers. That limitation of liability was really key to maintaining the openness of the Internet. The understanding is that an ISP provides the tools for communication, not the content itself and that people who post content are responsible for what they post. Now, SL provides a very specific platform for communication, as well as building tools, possibilities for expansion, etc. Clearly it plays a more active role than an AOL in how content is structured, hence one can expect it to be more restrictive.

On the other hand SL is expressly trying to create an environment that is open to modification, expansion, reconfiguration by the players. It occupies an unprecedented position between a game (with its rules, limited possibilities, defined goals) and an ISP hosted space where one can create, communicate, organize exhibitions, and so on. All this is happening in a social context where public debate on important RL issues is increasingly shifting to the Internet. Traditional source of information and place of debate are withering in favor of blogs, social networking sites and virtual worlds. Virtual worlds like SL, which offer possibilities of real time discussion between any number of people, could generate the intellectual excitement of European cafes in the early 20th century or the academic classroom; there could be virtual demonstrations reminiscent of 1968; civil rights marches. Virtual environments have the potential of transforming the public sphere on a global level and include many that had therefore been cut from public debate.

Now the platform where this debate is to happen is privately built, but all its details are developed by a collective effort of virtual world citizens. It makes no sense, either in view of the potential of virtual worlds as the new public sphere, or in view of who has ultimately created these worlds, to give godlike powers to the corporations that own the platform. Basically, is SL owners persist in squelching creative expression, its population will sooner or later migrate to a more open platform; if, on the contrary SL finds a way to open its platform to the full range of human fantasy and opinion, its potential is almost unlimited.

Q. In the US, we have the First Amendment and other countries have their own rules and laws governing what can and cannot be said or shown. Can you talk about how the international nature of a place like SL is affected by the shifting values and laws in all the places it reaches?

As I said, laws regulating the internet are in their infancy. Thus, it is yet not clear if a company working out of the US would be subject to the laws of another country (unless it can prevent the citizens of that other country from accessing material banned there – currently an impossible task). A French court, for instance, successfully sued Yahoo for hosting sites selling Nazi memorabilia (the case remains, however, inconclusive as Yahoo voluntarily removed the sites and the French did not pursue damages in the US). Could China go after SL for harboring critics of its political system? As it is, most SL users seem to be American of European, hence its TOS bans material that would be off limits in this part of the world.

Whether this happens with SL or another virtual environment, eventually, with increasing access to the Internet there will be some clash with local laws. At this point local authorities in more repressive places are taking the route of blocking their citizens from accessing content rather than strive to control US based corporations.

Q. It seems to me, that in cases like the ones you’ve mentioned, it comes down to the complicity of the company rather than the law. For instance, you didn’t have Yahoo fighting the French or Chinese governments; they just pretty much gave up and gave in. (ok this isn’t a question but just if you want to comment further.)

Actually Yahoo did fight the French – they asked a US court to declare that a French company cannot sue a US based company for content that is legal in the US. With China Google and Yahoo were put in a hard situation – to choose between the enormous Chinese market and a commitment to free speech (they would not have resolved China’s censorship problem either way). The way I think about these issues is pragmatic – a company would choose the most lucrative ways to develop and, as it happens, this is good for free speech as the free communication of ideas (even idea which might be anathema in your local paper) is what makes the Internet such an amazing – and revenue producing – place.

Q. If a person runs into a dispute in SL – say, for instance, an art exhibit is censored (let’s say that LL tells them to either pull an image or forfeit their membership) – what recourse does the censored person have to fight?

As a corporation, the only voice SL would listen to is that of its customers. It is easy to boot out one person, but if a thousand SL subscribers decide to post a forbidden image on their sites, I doubt SL would ban them all from the game. (I am talking about legal content here, of course.) If a large group of SL citizens could mobilize around a work and stage acts of civil disobedience, organize an act of mass protest, ridicule the company, etc., it is likely that the company might reconsider initial decision. This is the hope of the Virtual Coalition Against Censorship we are launching as a place to develop strategies for supporting free speech in a virtual worlds. We plan to attract a large number of members who will, as a group, speak in support of the free exchange of ideas in SL. It will then become much harder for the SL administration to refer to the (prudish) standards of some vague community.

Q. There have been, in the past, several times when residents have tried to organize other residents to protest one issue or another; organizing within SL has proven very difficult to do. Can you comment at all about this ennui, this reluctance to protest within this environment?

If an issue does not affect you directly, it is hard to care. Even more importantly, if you think that there is no chance to effect change you become apathetic – where I grew up, in Eastern Europe before 1989 there were extreme levels of political apathy. So there are two hurdles if we want people to begin to care – one is to make clear the point how censorship can potentially stifle the imagination and impoverish the world around us and the second is to register some success so as to prove things are not immutable.

But, there is also another crucial factor – that artists won’t always support each other in a censorship controversy. In fact some would call out FOR suppressing this or that work that they find objectioonable. So, creating a community that would unite around a cause and not disintegrate through in-fighting is not an easy task. That is especially true where creative people with strong ideas are involved.

Q. It would seem to me that the kind of civil disobedience that you’re talking about would also rely upon the SL “press corps” – ie, the bloggers and other in world journalists who write regularly about the goings on in SL.

Yes, absolutely, we can have civil disobedience in-world, but external blogs and real world press are important in putting pressure on a company – these are, of course, a double edged sword – depending how something is presented it can appear either as “protecting decency and civility” or “stifling the imagination.” A lot of the work my real world organization, the National Coalition Against Censorship, does, has to do with the press and the battle of definitions: nobody ever admits to being a censor, our task is to call out as censors, all these concerned citizens that want to cleanse public spaces of any nudes, criticism of the administration, heterodox religious thinking, and all else that someone might possibly find offensive.

Q. Can you talk a little about the Terms of Service? What does the ToS say about acceptable expression in SL?

SL bills itself as a “haven for creativity and social vision.” It invites free expression and debate of all kinds. Conferences are held here, there are college seminars that meet exclusively in SL, Sweden and Estonia have virtual embassies; presidential candidates campaign there. Yet it has speech restrictions that put a ban of all manner of speech that enjoys protections in RL.

Speech restrictions are not only not necessary so as to play the game they go counter to SL’s stated purpose and would ultimately limit the extent to which it can grow as a creative space.

TOS banning content that is “harmful, threatening, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable” basically opens the door to restricting whatever the company wishes.

But to what extent are SL citizens willing to protect free speech? If we are going to protect SL family photos that someone somewhere might decide are “objectionable” (because they think an adult with a child avatar is “perverse”), we have to also tolerate material that we personally might find offensive. Clearly, even more than in RL, nobody can force us to look or participate in something we don’t like.

Q. You make reference to some of the possible applications of SL, including among them education. I wonder if you could say a few words about the chilling effect that censorship of the kind we’re speaking of would have in an educational environment? For instance, if I’m using SL to teach art history – an ultimate goal of mine – is it acceptable for me to show the work of Sally Mann and Andres Serrano in world, as I would show slides in a real life lecture? Or would the imagery be considered too offensive?

That’s a great point: SL presents wonderful opportunities to teach, hold seminars, talks, present exhibitions, but it seems that so much of the edgy art you could see in RL galleries or discuss in a university seminar is off-limits in SL. We have cases where students complain about what they have been shown in RL classes. In those cases professors are usually backed up by administration. If a student complains in SL of content that violates the wide speech restrictions specified in the TOS (which include “anything objectionable”) would the professor and whole class be booted out of SL? And, if not (because such an act would put in danger the possibility for SL to remain an educational platform) are the TOS applied randomly only against certain individuals?

Q.Is it conceivable that a virtual world – given the pre-conditions that it would be built for-profit and that it would have an international reach – could ever be truly without censorship from the company that built it?

One can imagine a platform built and then open for development by its inhabitants, where some legal arrangement would indemnify the company from responsibility for the actions of its resident individuals. However, it seems to me that, being all of us members of the species of homo censorious, the problem is going to be – if not Big Brother (be I the company or the state) – then our neighbors. What I mean to say is that, ultimately, if there is no principled community support for free speech, we can’t expect much freedom. And by principled I mean the determination to tolerate others objectionable expression, so that, in turn, what we say would be tolerated independent of whether it offends anybody. How many of us can say we are share that determination?

Q. Why is this important? SL is primarily a game, something people do for fun and leisure. Given that there are other outlets (for instance in the Venkman situation, he published his photos on Flickr) for expression, why should we take this issue seriously?

People generally don’t take censorship very seriously unless it happens to them – and then they are outraged. If you have spent time creating, building, forming a community of frriends and then want to show them your work withing the environment you have collectivelly developed and where you «live» – all in the spirit of fun and leisure – it is infuriating to see that work not only rejected but condemned as violating that «community’s standards» especially when the standards have nothing to do with the community but with administots who only care to protect SL from media attacks.

And yes, there are always other places to show your work – that has been an argument used in RL too – taking a work out of a gallery is not, after all, burning it. However, it does mean taking it away from a certain audience and putting a stamp of disapproval on it. Censorship can actually change the meaning of a work for the audience – when you place a curtain before a nude, the very act of having to peek under it tinges the nude with a certain degree of obscenity and prurience.

For more information in the projects and activities of the Virtual Coalition Against Censorship, IM Libertad Lane in world.