Articles by Joshua Fairfield

Joshua Fairfield is Associate Professor of Law at Washington & Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Virginia. An expert in the law and regulation of e-commerce and videogames, Prof. Fairfield’s research and scholarship explores the law and economics of online contracts and the application of standard economic models to virtual environments. In addition, Prof. Fairfield is one of the nation’s leading voices in the analysis of virtual worlds, such as the popular Second Life. He has briefed intelligence officials on terrorist activity and law enforcement within virtual worlds and has written on strategies for protecting children online. In October 2008, Fairfield organized and hosted a first-of-its-kind symposium at the School of Law exploring the legal and social challenges of virtual worlds built specifically for children, the fastest growing area of virtual environments. Before earning his JD magna cum laude from the University of Chicago in 2001, Prof. Fairfield directed the development of the award winning Rosetta Stone Language Library, a leading language teaching software program for educational institutions. After law school, Professor Fairfield clerked for Judge Danny J. Boggs at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. He then joined Jones Day in Columbus, Ohio, where he litigated cases in commercial law and software/technology law. Before coming to Washington and Lee, Professor Fairfield taught at Columbia Law School and the Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington.

This morning the Federal Trade Commission released its report on kids and virtual worlds.  You can read the report, entitled Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks, here.  (I’ve posted similar thoughts over at Terra Nova, apologies for the cross-post).

What initially strikes me about the report is the distance between how the report’s being billed and what it actually says.  The billing of the report—and thus the likely media tagline—is that the “FTC Report Finds Sexually and Violently Explicit Content in Online Virtual Worlds Accessed by Minors.”  But a more accurate statement would be “FTC Report Finds Surprisingly Little Sexually and Violently Explicit Content in Online Virtual Worlds Accessed by Minors, Especially Compared to What Minors Can Find on the Internet.”

The Commission found at least one (really? that’s all?) instance of explicitly violent OR sexual content in a significant percentage of the virtual worlds it examined—and that includes user chat, but in general it didn’t find many such instances per world.  So to be counted in the study as a virtual world that contains explicit violent or sexual content, the researchers just had to find one instance of chat in which someone said something violent or sexually oriented (which of course includes the scatalogical as well as the sexual).  The point is, it appears to me that they went looking for anything and didn’t find much.  Far from being seen as an indictment of virtual worlds as dangerous for kids, this seems to me to be quite positive for virtual worlds, especially as compared to the internet at large.  I’m relying on the following language from the report:

Despite this seemingly high statistic [the Commission found at least one instance of sexually or violently explicit content in 19 out of 27 worlds], the Commission found very little explicit content in most of the virtual worlds surveyed, when viewed by the actual incidence of such content.


Of [the 14 virtual worlds open to children under 13], the Commission found at least one instance of explicit content on seven of them.  Significantly, however, with the exception of one world, Bots, all of the explicit content observed in the child-oriented worlds occurred when the Commission’s researchers visited those worlds as teen or adult registrants, not when visiting the worlds as children under age 13.

I think the study said some interesting things, and there is some strong analysis, but the reception the report will get is, I bet, far removed from what the report actually says.

Virtual Parentalism

by on October 21, 2009 · 8 comments

I'm the bear

Me, as a druid who could turn into my daughter’s pet bear

This is a story about Mary and the Bear. And the FTC.  And a paper entitled  Virtual Parentalism.

By way of background, Washington & Lee University Law School (where I teach) hosted a symposium entitled Protecting Virtual Playgrounds: Children, Law, and Play Online about a year ago.  At that time, it seemed pretty likely that Congress would soon begin thinking about regulating virtual worlds in an attempt to protect children.  Sure enough, as TLF’s Adam Thierer notes here in a Metanomics segment, the FTC was asked in an appropriations bill to produce a report concerning children’s access to adult materials in virtual worlds.  We got lucky—the papers produced by the symposiasts were ready in time to influence (one always hopes) the debate.

The motivation for the paper was simple: I love playing virtual worlds with my daughters, who are avid explorers of the medium.   I wouldn’t consider letting them do this without pretty serious parental supervision, so instead I went with them, joining them in their virtual world adventures.  Here’s me talking about it: How Parents can Connect with their Children in Virtual Worlds.

As I began to explore in greater depth, however, it became clear that parents’ involvement in virtual worlds is not a given.  The trend is toward segregating children and adults into separate virtual worlds.  Thus, my paper, which I have posted for your convenience on SSRN here (Virtual Parentalism), works out some of the dangers replacing parents with parentalist regulation in virtual worlds. Continue reading →