Law Faculty Scholarship Cited in FTC Virtual World Report

Lexington, VA • Thursday, December 17, 2009


Prof. Josh Fairfield

W&L Audio:
How Parents can Connect with their Children in Virtual Worlds
Prof. Joshua Fairfield
A recent report to the U.S. Congress from the Federal Trade Commission examining virtual worlds prominently cites the work of two Washington and Lee law professors.

The report, titled Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks, relied on work from Professors Joshua Fairfield and Robin F. Wilson in advising Congress on how children can access explicit content in online virtual worlds. In compiling the report, which was commissioned by Congress in March 2009, the FTC con¬ducted a survey of the explicit content offerings in 27 online virtual worlds, including worlds intended for young children, worlds that appealed to teens, and worlds intended only for adult participation.

Overall, the Commission found at least one instance of either sexually or violently explicit content in 19 of the 27 virtual worlds surveyed. However, Fairfield says it is significant that almost all of the explicit content observed in the child-oriented worlds occurred when researchers were registered as teens or adults, rather than as children. In addition, most of the explicit content observed was text-based and found in chat rooms, message boards, and discussion forums.

“This is a balanced report,” says Fairfield. “Although much of the focus has been on the fact that some explicit material was found in a majority of the virtual worlds surveyed, the Commission actually found surprising little such content per world, especially when compared to what can be found on the broader internet.”

In addition to its other recommendations, the FTC report suggested virtual world operators make enhancements aimed at reducing the risk of youth exposure to explicit content. These enhancements include ensuring that the age-screening mechanisms do not encourage underage registration and strengthening age-segregation techniques to help ensure that minors and adults interact only with their peers and view only age-appropriate material.

Fairfield’s article “Virtual Parentalism” was cited in the report as supporting the use of filtering technologies rather than regulation to protect both children and adults in virtual worlds.  The report also quoted at length Fairfield’s recent article in the McGill Law Journal, “Anti-Social Contracts: The Contractual Governance of Virtual Worlds,” for the report's opening description of how actions in virtual worlds affect real life.  Wilson's article “Sex Play in Virtual Worlds” was the lead citation for the proposition that children may be exposed to pornography and other explicit activities in virtual worlds.

Wilson’s article and Fairfield’s article on parentalism were both written for the symposium Protecting Virtual Playgrounds: Children, Law, and Play Online, held at W&L on Oct 3. 2008. The symposium was one of the first to explore the legal and social challenges of virtual worlds built specifically for children, the fastest growing area of virtual environments.  Audio and video of the symposium proceedings are available at law.wlu.edu/virtualplaygrounds.

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