Who Am I?

Toney, Alabama, United States
Software Engineer, Systems Analyst, XML/X3D/VRML97 Designer, Consultant, Musician, Composer, Writer

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reporting Services for Worlds and Networks

One requirement parent’s must make of the online virtual worlds, games and social networks is reporting services. These are opt-in features of the application that enable the parent to subscribe to reports at some interval (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.) that detail their child’s activity on the site. Typical information that should be provided includes:

  • Registered Name

  • Avatar Name

  • Time online

  • Sites visited in world by name, topic and duration of each visit

  • Pointers to chats and a chart of who is chatting with the child

  • Semantic danger/warning icons with drill down to specific reportable events in-world (eg., keyword parsing for information that is suspicious such as phone numbers or adult-oriented topics).

  • Items purchased with world tokens or real dollars. If a charge card was used, this information should be available on request and verification of requestor identity (real world, not virtual persona

If you have some more items you would like to see in these reports, drop a signed comment in the bin here. Do sign it with a real name. Personna names and anonymous comments don't get published. It's a house rule.

Reporting services are not that difficult or expensive to implement. They are a part of any decent enterprise application so there is little or no technical barrier here. This is simply a service one should expect or refuse to allow the child to join the site. If a game site or virtual world site can’t provide these, you have a right to be suspicious of that vendor and you should be telling your friends and neighbors that their kids are best kept off such a site.

Before anyone sends me a ‘this is data mining’ or ‘we should trust our children’ or ‘if you raised them right, you don’t have to worry’ or ‘that takes the fun out of it’ or any of the several dumb-ass reasons for not keeping tabs on our kids, let me say:


Anyone who doesn’t get that isn’t a parent and anyone who is and doesn’t get that shouldn’t be. Just as you don’t drop your kids off to see a movie in a red-light district, you shouldn’t let them join virtual worlds that don’t report to you.


Reed Hedges said...

In general, logging and accounting is a useful feature, often overlooked from the "get stuff done now" perspective of software development. Most accounting/logging is an afterthought, or an artifact of past debugging efforts.

Alex said...

Hi, Len

Thank you for inviting me to read this topic. Well... let's put aside for a while THE FACT that online 'places' popular among kids are so mostly because they are 'unsupervised'... Let's talk about absolutely concrete things - the Reporting Service. I can build this thing with my team. I'm not sure it will be wildly popular (see above), but I can. However there are 'just a couple of issues'. Namely:
1. How does provider on such service know that f.i. you are the parent of your kid? Ask for birth certificate? Would you show it to anybody? I can imagine only one way - PARENT registers in the service by himself, then registers their kids in any online games, social web-sites etc.etc. Would it work, how do you think?
2. Recording and storing kids communications in online world is not easy... it can be done in SOME, f.i. SL. Companies maintaining VW and games are strictly prohibiting any eavesdroping (and what you suggest is just that), probably we can talk them into creating some kind of 'exemption' for Parental Control services... questionable actually. In any case - don't you think that legitimate parrents can abuse this thing? I'm kinda scared of BOTH equally, how about you?

I'll think about the capabilities of RS you've listed and probably add something later.


Len Bullard said...

Hi Alex:

One, let's not skip over that too quickly. Kids don't actually have the right to demand that and smart parents don't give it without some reassurance. This is where Linden Labs has made a serious mistake. In loco parentis does not apply, but some variation of it might in the future is the incidents of cyberbullying continue to increase.

Another thing to consider beyond reporting services will be rating services. The game industry under pressure finally instituted a rating system for games. I think a free rating system service will appear for virtual worlds at some point and possibly other social network sites. I think parental reporting services might be one of the features that gets a better rating, but TBD.

Before SL was even a product, the VRML virtual worlds went through the same issues. Note that today Cybertown polices its citizenry. Jewel of Indra always has because as an adult site, keeping the kids out is a service both to the parents and to the JOI citizens.

Contrary to what the press and some poor studies suggest, the problem goes both ways. When I was performing at the Cybertown music venues in the 90s, the big problems were with disruptions from younger members vieing for attention (early griefers) and with young girls and others trying to get me into private chats. My defense then was to have my young son sit with me while the concert was going on because he could spot the underaged partiers much faster than I could as he could recognize the avatar names as belonging to his generation better than I could. From time to time, because of songs I keep up on the web, I get some pretty provocative email. In some cases, these are obviously from underaged girls or police detectives working an entrapment scheme. I have a standard response that is essentially, "Where is your Mom and does she know you do this?" That never fails to stop the correspondence. No loss to me. Otherwise, if they write to ask about the songs, I point them to a site where they can find more and tell them to download them for free. That's a big gain in the sense that I've plenty of presence on iPods.

So reporting services are a piece of the solution, rating services can be a piece and simply making sure as an adult that one is careful whom one interacts with socially is a piece of the solution. This is just common sense.

Good luck with your team. Let me know how that goes. The Web3DC would possibly be interested in hearing about that as their members have a longer history with fielding VWs than Linden Labs and may be able to suggest improvements or learn from your work. To have a better and safer web, we really are going to have to work at it.


Alex said...

Hi again, Len,
I'm still thinking about the RS you are suggesting and I have no idea how to implement the key feature you are asking for - 'binding' of a kid account/service with a parental access. Maybe you suggest something?
The ONLY possible (working) scenario I can see is:

Scenario I.
1. Parent registers in a centralized Reporting Service, provides it with his name, address AND names of his kids.
2. Parent registers his kids in games or on web-sites/in services they are asking him to 'purchase' (although they may be free) for them. At the time of sign-up Parent indicates that he's registering an account for his kid and enters his kid name and HIS OWN physical address (it's all kind of a 'legal stuff' our lawyers say some paper communications will be absolutely necessary).
3. Kid is playing, doing whatever she/he is doing, Parent gets online access to reports you'd requested in your post.

This is doable. What is obviously NOT doable is:
Parent DISCOVERS that her/his Kid is playing some game or attending some web-site under a fictitious name after providing fake registration data about age and location and writes to the owners of the game/site that (s)he want's it to report the kid's activity. This will NEVER work for many obvious reasons, legal included.

Please, understand me right, I'm not arguing anybody's righs to supervise her/his kids, I'm trying to figure out what can be done, because certain things just can not, if you implement them they will abused and the results of such abuse will be even more severe (did you hear the story of a girl that was on MySpace lately and what happened when the parents of her boy-friend talked somebody into sending hate messages to her? That's a scary scenario for any Reporting Service provider).


P.S. Also, maybe we just talk over e-mail? Mine is alxfed at gmail dot com.

Len Bullard said...

Hi Alex:

I agree with your lawyers. There are three approaches:

1. The first is as you describe. A parent signs up the kids. Otherwise, if the kid is using the parent's charge card, the card vendor should be notifying them. If the parents aren't keeping up with that kind of activity, then the problem is one of bad parenting. Unfortunately, there is a lot of that out there.

2. In worlds where there is anonymous registration, the big problems are verification. If kids are in these worlds (it isn't that hard to figure that out), then the vendor has to police that world. That was the Cybertown and JOI solution. In both cases, the world owners bear responsibility just as meatspace shopping malls do. What they pay for and how effective that is is the hard problem as the Nebraska incident shows. The MySpace incident is different. There is no means I am aware of for a vendor to protect against that. That is a job for the local community. IMO, that mother should be in jail today.

3. If a parent is a legal guardian for an underage child and discovers the child has an account without permission, the parent must be enabled to provide verified identity to the vendor to ask for the account to be closed or to engage reporting services.

Reporting services are exactly that: a service that can be contracted for. It is not enforcement. Smart business persons building these worlds will do the right thing. Others will be labeled by the virtual world review groups as 'dangerous sites for children', or some such. I think this is inevitable and it is a matter of how teams such as yours implement and sell or provide the services.

It takes society a little time to catch up to new technologies, but it always does and the adaptations are fairly predictable. Some will tell you the future cannot be predicted, but in the main, it can.

Thanks for the mail and once again, good luck with what you are doing.

Alex said...

Hi, Len,
Thank you very much for responding to my comment. I understand your points and agree with them completely. Thank you.
P.S. What we are building is - an alternative payments service / card for games and g-commerce. We can implement both elements of 1.

Len Bullard said...

Pundits such as myself are usuually behind at least one industry leader.


This is an example of the world owner starting right from scratch to handle some of the issues.