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  Third-Party ‘Second Life’ Search Discovers Backlash  
Posted 2007-04-10 by Tony Walsh
Immediately after a third-party Second Life search system was launched yesterday by the Electric Sheep Company, backlash followed. The system scans public areas of the 3D virtual world daily, cataloging objects marked for sale, and making that catalog available for web-based search.

Privacy concerns have been voiced, first by high-profile veteran Second Life resident Prokofy Neva, and then (as reported by The Second Life Herald) by international-headline-making land baroness Anshe Chung. At issue is the opt-out nature of the Electric Sheep's search system, which presumes that Second Life residents don't mind being exposed to the web at large. By default, all avatars' items marked for sale are subject to indexing by the search system. To change this setting, an avatar must visit SheepLabs HQ in-world and either opt out completely, or volunteer all objects (marked for sale or not) for indexing.

Prokofy Neva expressed his infuriation with the new search system yesterday, writing on his blog Second Thoughts "Like Google, it grabs and captures anything, and puts in what it feels like, NOT what somebody has intentionally tagged...It's a horrific invasion of privacy, and now I have to run to all my hundreds of tenants and tell them to take everything on their lot they don't want put up on the fucking INTERNET advertising what they have in their posession '[for sale].'"

Anshe Chung, who owns a continent's-worth of virtual land in Second Life has reportedly blocked the Electric Sheep's search-system unilaterally, telling The Second Life Herald that she has "explicitly forbid [the Electric Sheep Company] to enter Dreamland with robots again, such as CopyBot or the spy data gatherer of their search thing." Since the search system makes use of a scanning avatar named "Grid Shepherd," it's possible to block the scans by banning the avatar from one's land. In Chung's case, Grid Shepherd must have been banned from something in the order of 500 "simulators" (square land-masses)--an action that wouldn't have been necessary if the search system was designed to be opt-in from the start.

So far, it's too early to tell if backlash against the Electric Sheep Company's search system will extend beyond Second Life's most prominent residents, but it's certainly possible. In my view, the outcry is completely understandable. The search system is presenting, in aggregate, information that ranges in sensitivity, depending on the owners' intentions. It's not a big deal when objects deliberately placed in the public view are scanned, but it can be a big deal when that Hello Kitty vibrator you've been hiding under your bed gets exposed. I think it's safe to say that most Second Life residents subscribe to the "out of sight, out of mind" viewpoint: If it's "hidden" in Second Life, the expectation is that prying eyes--including a scanner bot like Grid Shepherd--shouldn't be able to find it.

Second Life isn't the same as the World Wide Web (at least in how its users perceive it), and probably shouldn't be treated the same way as web pages, routinely scanned by search-engine bots. I'm pretty sure that Linden Lab would prefer to that Second Life be as permeable and open as the WWW, but it's got to take a definitive step in this direction. Currently, there is no true public data in Second Life: Linden Lab owns the data comprising the world, including user avatars and objects. On the other hand, the company's Terms of Service indicate that invasions of privacy are prohibited (section 4.1). I don't understand how user-privacy even exists in a world owned by one private entity. Any shift in resident privacy-expectations Second Life is ultimately up to Linden Lab, which hasn't seemed to have decided whether Second Life is a country or an internet--whether it is a government presiding over population of residents, or a service-provider to hundreds of thousands of users. This being said, the company isn't likely to move on clarifying what's public and private in its world until a sufficient number of Second Life residents present a unified argument one way or the other.
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Comment posted by HiroPendragon
April 10, 2007 @ 12:53 pm
The important thing to keep in mind is that this is a Beta for eSheep. This kind of feedback is what they have asked for - albeit, probably not in the extreme labeling-them-as-"Evil" sort of jargon that a couple people are throwing around.

That said, some background:

Backlash over grid-wide scanning systems is nothing new to Second Life. There have been more than a handful of land scanners / swoopers, the
most famous was when avatar (an oldbie known for "accidental" grid crashing with a swarm of
replicator ants back in 2003) had a satellite network that was spanning literally the entire grid in mid 2005. This was met with harsh criticism and ultimately, Linden Lab changed several land policies rather than
punishing him. (For instance, you used to be able to 1-click release your land, and it would be available at 1L/m instantly. Now, it goes to an auction so that land swoopers didn't grab accidental releases.)

At the time, the key thing to understand is that there are two criticisms of grid-wide land-scanners, one perhaps more valid and concrete than the other.
1. That land scanners are an invasion of privacy. Essentially this spurs a debate whether land-owners in SL have a right to privacy, etc. This is not a 1-sided debate.
2. That land scanners are not scalable. This is the rationale that ultimately Linden Lab has reasoned with and has upheld for other data scrapers / spiders as well as other land scanners. It's also the rationale I am more interested in, as I think the land issue comes down to a "do we want to go to a new paradigm or not?" - something that, again, clearly has 2 sides to debate.

So, by "not scalable", I'm not talking that eSheep's system can't scale. What I'm saying is that what won't scale is the number of different companies doing similar systems. eSheep and other land scanners all have systems that they took great care in making low-lag. That's great. Unfortunately, by setting a precedent that a person or company is allowed to spider the grid en masse, it gives the okay for everyone to do it. To illustrate this point, one user created a freebie land scanner, and there was even more uproar.

It's a matter of following the categorical imperative: If everyone had land scanners, the grid would crash.

But it's far less improbable than that. Even if only 100 companies had grid-scanners, that'd be 100 avatars visiting every parcel on a sim every day. And that's assuming every single one of them was highly scrupulous with their work.

If we assume this Internet paradigm that eSheep and others are asserting, "bots and spiders are normal parts of the Internet", then we should look the extent of their behavior on the Internet. Many spiders on the Internet are trolling for email addresses, personal information, etc, in an effort to spam you. These people don't care about your website's bandwidth, they only care about getting the spam out.

So while eSheep and others may be scrupulous, other companies who are less ethical can and will follow this precedent. Many companies would set out dozens or even hundreds of bots, and quickly we're reaching into tens of thousands of avatars of traffic, and that is absolutely a significant number when we think of concurrency around 45,000. According to a source in libSL, a regular PC can run about 20 bots simultaneously, so mass-spidering not very cost-prohibitive, and the software's basically already out there.

So, as cool as better search is, and as interesting as spidering is, the simple fact is that this is not a scalable solution. Whether a company like Electric Sheep or Infinite Vision Media or whomever pioneer a new technology, they can't stick their head in the sand and expect
*no one* else to do this.

In this case, I don't think that's eSheep's approach. I can only assume that eSheep's approach was very deliberately, "Stick your toes in the water". An alternative might have been to limit the scans to one area.

Of course, this can all be solved by eSheep turning their search to an opt-in system, like second411 or others.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
April 10, 2007 @ 4:03 pm
Excellent comments, thanks Hiro. My takeaway from this is "If everyone had land scanners, the grid would crash." Hadn't even thought of that in terms of a scalable/sustainable model for data collection, scrupulous or not.
Comment posted by Ordinal Malaprop
April 10, 2007 @ 5:19 pm
The point about scalability is not one which I addressed in my own post, but it is certainly a significant one. Even a dozen companies running search scan bots would have significant effects. The Grid is fragile enough as it is.

I am also heartily sick of people saying "oh do you mind when Google spiders your home page? ho ho ho". There is a world of difference between a Myspace (or whatever) page, specifically written to be a document that other people will go and read, and a plot of land within SL which is actually a place where you may be leading an alternate life and have expectations of privacy, feelings of having one's privacy violated. Not everything on the internet is the same, as amazingly obvious as that may be to state, but it seems to be escaping some.
Comment posted by Mabb Dilweg
April 11, 2007 @ 7:45 pm
OK so I understand it's in Beta, but I'm surprised at the lack of results turning up for certain keywords. I looked up some keywords I have on some of my products, but not one of them was returned in the search results set. Have they released it before scanning the whole grid? There's precious little information on how to search - how do phrases work, how to refine a search etc. in the About Search section.

It's VERY beta actually, and perhaps there IS time for people to opt out before any damage is done.

What concerns me most is the lack of information available in-world and the lack of warning as to the consequences. I've been busy and haven't read any blogs for a few days. There are most likely thousands of residents who are completely unaware of this, and therefore unaware of the consequences.

Because of that, the system should definitely be an opt-in rather than opt-out. It's only common courtesy Sheep!
Comment posted by csven
April 11, 2007 @ 9:41 pm
I also tested using some of the items I had out: no hits. So you're not alone, Mabb.

What I've yet to do is enter the name of something I don't own, but which probably a whole lot of people do. Then I'm takin' names... ;)
Comment posted by Ace Albion
April 12, 2007 @ 7:12 am
I mentioned this in passing on Prokofy's blog but it's worth mentioning it here:

One problem I anticipate, comes from seeing how the landbots work. They home in instantly, and buy at the speed of electrons. A "BargainBot" could work the same way.

When you are setting something for sale, there's a human limitation between the time it takes to tick the "for sale" box, set the option to sell original, copy, or contents, and the price. By default the values are "sell original for 10L".

Buying the item is not locked out as an option while it is being edited by the creator. In the time it takes to move your mouse from the "set for sale" box to even hover over the price, a BargainBot will have scanned, swooped and bought your custom build original for 10L. For some unfathomable reason, those are grayed out until the sale box is ticked.

Unless you have a foolproof way of guaranteeing no other avatar presence anywhere near your workplace (ie a private island with an access list only), anyone can grab your original work for 10L.

The esheep system also records the creator. So if you make anything that is later "re-purposed" or "recycled" perhaps maliciously, into something objectionable sounding, the internet will see you're the creator of that kind of thing. All you did in reality was rez a plywood cube that got reused.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
April 12, 2007 @ 10:59 am
I've already argued against a lot of the tekkie viewpoints on my blog or the Herald. It is about privacy, and the TOS constantly being invoked about the right to use content isn't appropriate, as other parts of the TOS ensure reasonable degrees of privacy. I maintain that putting out information on my parcel is conversation, not content, and as such should be governed by privacy, not IP sections of the TOS. But it needs to be defined better.

Hiro's points are valid, but disturbing. They say that you can only appeal to the "conscience" of voracious, scraping marketing companies by indicating that all voracious, scraping marketing companies will harm the very environment they are trying to scrape and ruin sim performance if they are all allowed to function.

But if we're going to worry about harm to the environment, let's not get all special about sim performance and the environment for optimal bot performance, let's worry about the *people* in the environment. There's no ethic or principle that says nihilist and extremist tekkies get to endlessly scrape people. Google doesn't scrape the contents of my hard-drive, and certainly not my RL bathroom. There are limits on it placed properly. And they can be placed properly in a virtual world.

Just because it's virtual doesn't mean we sign on for a bout of lifelogging and scraping. Makers of virtual worlds who ensure their customers' comfort level on privacy and limit even their own voracious scraping will succeed. Those that have to destroy their village in order to save it will fail.

Unfortunately, in the small pond that is Second Life still, Hiro's theory of multiple bots won't come to pass. Because one company got to go ahead with a wink and nod from LL, and other companies are likely merely to ask ESC to license them the use of their bot, rather than make their own, so ESC will go on governing it, like a big company that takes over a utility monopoly, a kind of ATT. There won't be the competition that Hiro imagines.

Christian W is already busy boosting the bot's capacity and the information and they will just keep on scraping many categories of things.

Where we'll really start to see some howling is when they grab parcel data and take over the land market's information for their own private use.

So far, the Lindens have held the wall against "get parcel data" as an LL command, but that could be wavering. Apparently there was an existing LSL command to get "items for sale data" off each individual lot, something that nobody bothered with until the CopyBot type technology was deployed.

(And here, I simply refuse to accept any literalist and word-salady objections that CopyBot, which so disrupted the world and was an inkling of all this rightly protested, is "one kind of program" and LandBot, CampBot, and now SearchBot are somehow all unrelated, and not next of kin, if in fact not Siamese twins separated at birth.)

I'm going to be watching intently to see at what point the Lindens cave under tekkie libsl and commercial pressure to turn over "get parcel data" so that everybody land, traffic, descriptions, etc. becomes something to church and aggregate and serve up as a massive SEARCH PLACES replacer/

I hope the Lindens get their own SEARCH working better (I feel it already works pretty well!) on their own website with the opt-in principle that it has already built into it by that time.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
April 12, 2007 @ 11:02 am
*churn and aggregate

And while I opposed the GOMing of GOM because GOM was a public service that provided benefits to all businesses equally and created an independent currency market and value for labour, the GOMing of SEARCH in the name of defending the public interst and preventing private ruination of the public environment might be a good thing we'd promote LL to do.
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