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House subcommittee operates in a fantasy world . . . no, really

Times Staff Writer

A man with an oversized top hat sat in the front row of a House subcommittee hearing Tuesday, munching on popcorn. Next to him was a woman wearing wings that let her fly out of her seat. And she was sitting by a large bumblebee.

It wasn’t an April Fool’s Day stunt but the first time a congressional hearing was simulcast into the popular online virtual world called Second Life. With more than 12 million accounts, including an estimated 500,000 active users, the 3-D fantasy portal that lets users anonymously create customized personalities for themselves has now drawn the attention of Congress.

The increased popularity of virtual worlds on the Internet raises tricky public policy dilemmas about consumer protection, privacy, child safety, banking, terrorism and addiction. Though the hearing by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee was informational, and no legislation has been proposed, congressional interest could represent the first step of what may be stepped-up government oversight in an area often likened to the Wild West.

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The panel responsible for oversight of the Internet is chaired by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has his own “avatar,” or online image.

The live feed of the computer-generated room was projected on television screens in the real hearing room. More people seemed to sign on for the animated version -- the company said it was 65 -- than showed up to watch in person. The real Markey let the cyber Markey pound the gavel to open the meeting.

“My avatar actually looks like he’s been working out,” he said.

Those who promote the program say it represents the future of social interaction online. In Second Life, nonprofits raise money, colleges offer classes and companies train employees.

There is a less savory side to the virtual worlds, though. Questions about the possible need for government regulation arose after a virtual “bank” promising interest rates of more than 40% disappeared from Second Life late last year with $75,000 in real-money deposits. Second Life, which says millions of dollars pass over its servers each month, responded by prohibiting virtual banks. Gambling and simulations of sexual activity with minors had already been prohibited.

Philip Rosedale, founder and chief executive of Linden Lab, the San Francisco-based company that owns Second Life, downplayed concerns about fraud by telling the subcommittee that it was rare and that the company monitored suspicious activity.

Another congressional concern was the risk of predators soliciting minors online. Second Life has created an area for children under 18, but the company relies on users to volunteer their true age when signing up for that part of the program.

“Once a person is in there, he or she could camouflage themselves,” said Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.).

Rosedale said that there have not been significant problems and that federal authorities are contacted when crimes are committed. But, he acknowledged, “like most Internet companies, there are of course limits to how much we can check.”

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Venice) expressed fears that the virtual worlds -- which attract members from around the world -- may provide cover for terrorists looking to recruit members. She cited a British newspaper report, published last year, that suggested that radical Islamic terrorists may be infiltrating Second Life.

“There’s a huge plus side to this, and then there is a huge possible downside to this,” she said. “I am not advocating censorship, but I am asking what we can do in clear-eyed fashion to make certain that these glorious tools are not abused.”

Rosedale said the company has never seen any evidence to indicate terrorist activity. “It’s rigorously self-policed,” he said. “People are very aggressive about identifying anyone who they think should not be there.”

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) worried about users spending so much time on the portal that they become addicted.

“Is there any effort to limit excessive use of the application?” he asked.

No future hearings are scheduled, but action is possible.

“The government should monitor this, continue the hearings and ultimately somehow be a participant,” Stearns said after the hearing.

Stearns, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said he would be happy if Markey wanted to disappear into the fantasy land of Second Life -- so he could take control of the panel.

“If you begin to enjoy the virtual world too much, you may not want to return to the real world,” he said. “While you’re at it, you may want to invite some of your Democratic colleagues as well.”

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james.hohmann@latimes.com


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