From a governance perspective – what the key structural differences between Virtual Worlds and the Internet and what does this mean for national governments?
As part of the work that the Virtual Policy Network think tank is doing I’m going to be part of the UK Government delegation the to Internet Governance Forum in Hyderabad later this year where I'm supporting the organization of the workshop on virtual worlds (if you are a virtual world provider and interested in being a part of this please contact me via tVPN). It looks like I’ll be also be giving a short presentation on virtual worlds and particularly, as this is an ‘internet governance’ forum, the key differences between virtual worlds and ‘the internet’ as these pertain to governance.
I thought I’d run through an argument here for TNers to take apart before my eyes.
At the top level I want to take a fairly technologically deterministic approach to this. Then potentially problematize this in latter debate or other wise. Hence while I’m well aware that Actor Network Theory instructs us that technological artefacts are not simply what they are, nor are their uses or regulation a given – we do have a set of current artefact-practice networks that we can discuss on the terms that have emerged. Of course we can then argue that these are not necessary (in a philosophical sense).
So, what we have at had is the internet and virtual worlds. What, then, is what?
First we have the internet. As TN readers will know, the net is far from the formless cloud that most people imagine it is. The internet is just that an interconnected set of networks that are controlled by individual organizations the basic unit of management being the Autonomous System (AS). These are then connected using standard protocols that pass data from one to the other, the key things here being the Boarder Gateway Protocol (BGP) that controls these interconnections (and the advertisement of routs - that is who connects to who) and peering / transit arguments – which are the commercial agreements between any two network owners who interconnect (transit being paid for peering not – on the assumption that two peers pass traffic to each other in roughly equal measure). These networks are broadly ranked in terms of size, the Tier 1 networks being the small number of big global network, Tier 2 being regional networks and Tier 3 being your local ISP. Physically all this sits on a set of actual networks such as big under sea optical cables owned by yet another set of players who often host many or the ISPs. There are then interconnection points between networks, access points and ‘last mile’ connections i.e the wire or wireless to your door.
All of the above works because of a set of engineering and governance principles. There are high degrees of mutual dependency and commonality of protocol. Broad principles such as end-to-end (the idea the net is ‘neutral’ and that protocol specific stuff sits at the edge i.e. clients and servers) are applied – thought this is not universal and in some areas (especially the US) there are on-going debates over issues such as ‘net neutrality’.
This means that there is a technical, organizational and structural difference between who runs the network and who, runs a given application and who uses it. This in turn has give rise to governance principles and law. A key one being the notion of ‘common carrier’ that is if you are neutral in respect of the content you carry, you are not legally responsible for it e.g. the phone company is not responsible for what you say on the phone. Again, of course, such principles are more complex as carriers have legal duties to be reactive in terms of content control, and in some cases (an increasingly in some areas of the world) pro-active (c.f. ISP filtering, Viacom vs YouTube etc.).
Touching briefly on more sociological issues I would argue that the relationship between internet and community is a broad one. ISP’s are, and the internet can facilitate and even give rise to communities, but one would not, in any strong sense, want to point to internet users as an identifiable community. Indeed the use of the net is increasingly invisible to us. I press a button on my phone and a picture I just took ends up on Flickr – it used the net, but frankly I don’t care.
Then we have virtual worlds. From the context above, a virtual world is simply a n other application. On the whole, virtual worlds are very different from the internet (though here I will focus on what I term the metaverse model of virtual worlds, as opposed to the emerging highly distributed model that Vast Park, MetaPlace and the like are using).
Virtual words are client sever applications that use either largely proprietary protocols and clients (SL, WoW etc) or standard things like Flash / Java /clients (Habbo etc). Virtual worlds sit on top of the internet (or could be access via direct connection) and are highly centralized in terms of control of servers, client, assets, registration databases etc. Virtual worlds are not interconnected. Management of virtual worlds, in terms of technical control and customer support falls into three rough models global (EvE, There, SL etc); Regional (WoW, LOTRO), National (Habbo). Virtual worlds have identifiable and self-identifying communities.
Given the above, I would suggest that the key differences between the net and virtual worlds – when looking from a very high perspective of global governance structures, are:
- the net derives its nature and key benefits from being interconnected, global and ‘neutral’ (in terms of connection, content, protocol)
- virtual worlds derive their key benefits from creating ‘spaces’ with varying degrees of structure (often those structures being ones intended to generate game play) in which communities form
One might also want to differentiate between Virtual Worlds and some other internet based applications such as email. While one’s individual email servers is an island on the net that one connects to directly, email works because of the network effect of fact that individual servers can find and talk to each other.
Now, at this level of argument, if I were a national government I would not see any great reason why I should not regulate most virtual worlds on a national basis whereas I would see why I should be very careful about the application of nation law to the internet and would look to bodes such as the IETF, ICANN, IGF etc. After all, Habbo is national and there seems no strong argument why WoW etc should not also be, and why we could not either break up Second Life or strictly zone it around jurisdictional boundaries.
Personally, I think that one of the social goods that virtual worlds can bring about is the fact that they can create truly multi-national communities (on this point I have big issues with WoW etc making it hard for people to create global guild (I happen to be a member of AIE probably the most global guild in WoW)).
However, I think there need to be a number of strong arguments or more meat to the above argument, if the industry feels it should make a case against national regulation. Though I note there is a purely economic argument against it e.g. could something like ATITD even exist if it has to operate on a national basis? Of course on the other hand it might be the case that Virtual Worlds should operate like bricks and mortar companies – indeed we might say that the savings from greater clarity of regulation would be greater than the costs of national sharding (noting that data centres / customer service etc could still be centralized to a large degree).
So – what have I got wrong (my memory of the internet is rusty) and are what are the arguments around global / regional / national governance (on either side) that I’ve missed?