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Last week’s unexpected change to the Second Life third-party viewer policies has generated a lot of questions. As promised, I contacted Linden Lab with a list of the most commonly-asked questions and have collected the responses.

One interesting departure from normal Linden Lab communication policies is that Oz Linden’s statements on or about the new policy, verbal or otherwise, are to be interpreted as being official policy statements on behalf of Linden Lab – a privilege rarely granted; in fact, I think it is unique.

Accordingly, most of the responses from the Lab are from Oz.

Why was the policy update posted to the forum section of the community site instead of to the blog? Being a terms-of-service change, it strikes me that it should be made prominent, as it is a part of an agreement that all users must comply with individually.

We try to use the official Second Life blog for announcements when they impact all Second Life users. Because this change affects developers of third party Viewers, rather than all users of Second Life, it was announced and discussed directly with developers at the Open Development User Group, and then we posted about the changes in the forum so that the link to the post explaining the changes could be easily shared with developers.

This indirectly impacts all users, one way or another, as it is directly related to viewers that are commonly used. Why was it not announced as widely, as (for example) “Flickr Pic of the day”?

In this case, because the updates were to the guidelines specifically for developers, we tried to target our communication about what changes we made and why to them. We understand that the changes will also be of interest to the users of those Viewers, and we appreciate the opportunity to help explain the changes through exchanges like this, but our priority at the time of announcing the changes was explaining them to developers themselves.

When does the new policy come into effect?

The policy went into effect on February 24, 2012.

Which features and viewers are affected by the policy change?

There are a couple of minor changes like eliminating Viewer tags and online status, which we’ve already discussed with Viewer developers.

Will users of those viewers and the viewer developers be notified, or will the affected viewers be locked out of Second Life as soon as possible after the policy comes into effect? If there’s notification before viewers are locked out, how long will the grace period be?

We haven’t made any changes to how the policy is enforced, and at this point there are no enforcement actions planned related to these changes.

So, most third-party viewers are in violation of the policy at the time that it went into force, but Linden Lab is not planning to take any action about current viewers that are in breach of the policy?

Viewers that had features in violation of the updated policy (for example, “true online presence”) are changing them, and we don’t expect to have to take action to enforce the updates at this time.

We made the updates not in response to a specific problem right now, but to prevent the problems that could arise in the future if we don’t protect a common and safe experience for all users of Second Life. We wanted to be clearer that those sorts of features should be developed in cooperation with Linden Lab and also strengthen the protections for all users’ security and privacy.

There’s a list of “exceptions” to the policy (particularly to item 2.k). Where and when will that list of exceptions be published/announced, or will it remain verbal and anecdotal?

We don’t have plans to publish a list of exceptions to the policy. We will enforce the policy as we usually do, and if problems arise, we will deal directly with the developers involved to try to resolve those issues. Again, though, at this point there are no enforcement actions planned related to these changes.

Does this mean that text-based viewers, mobile-device viewers, and those that are customised for the disabled are forbidden when the policy comes into effect? If not, well, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the policy that would *permit* them to still be used.

Absolutely not. There is nothing in the new rules that in any way alters support for accessibility, or any other changes that are purely presentation and user interface.

The text of the policy appears to indicate otherwise. Doesn’t the text of the policy automatically take precedence over any representations about the policy? As a user, I must read and agree to this document, as I must read and agree to more than 30,000 words of other policy documents and materials.

Obviously, I expect to know exactly to what I – and others – are agreeing, and have a natural expectation for a consistent, transparent process of enforcement by Linden Lab as a part of its own obligations.

It is not always possible to write a rule or a policy in a way that is at once simple, unambiguous, and covers all future possibilities. Some judgement is required, and we believe that the developers of third party viewers are quite capable both of making good judgements and of communicating with us about what they would like to do to contribute to the Second Life experience.

If as a user you are not confident that a particular third party viewer is compliant with the policy for any reason, you should not use it. If developers are unsure whether a feature would be in violation of the policy, we encourage them to discuss it with Oz Linden.

What procedure will be in place for TPV developers who want to develop a new viewer feature? They’ll clearly need to get approval from Linden Lab before they start (since if they don’t get it later, it will be a waste of effort). Since they cannot release or change almost any feature before Linden Lab does, I suppose that means that any approval they get will have to be in writing. Hardly anyone seems to be clear on what is and isn’t permitted at this time.

The vast majority of TPV features are differences in the user interface or communications that don’t create any incompatibility with other Viewers, and as such are not affected by the new rules.  If Viewer developers would like clarification on specific features, they should contact Oz Linden.

The Snowstorm proposal review process is in place for Viewer developers who have suggestions that do affect the shared experience.

Speaking of features, how does this affect the mesh parametric deformer, specifically?

The proposed mesh deformer is a good example of the kind of feature that impacts the shared experience of Second Life and is subject to the new section of the policy (2.k). It’s something that affects the shared experience, so it’s a feature that should be developed by working with Linden Lab so that it can be incorporated it into Second Life for all users. We’re very supportive of the mesh deformer proposal and are working with Qarl to incorporate it into the official Viewer as soon as it’s done. As such, we don’t expect this to be a problem.

We would prefer that testing of the new feature be done primarily on that common code base to minimize the time until we can accept it, but don’t object to TPVs incorporating test versions with it.  We caution content creators and users that until work on it is complete, any objects created using test versions may not remain compatible with the final integrated feature.

Exactly how is the policy enforced?

Enforcement is described in section 8 of the policy itself. Our reason for updating the policy was not to go after a Third Party Viewer, and if problems arise with violations of the policy, we’d rather work with the developers to resolve it. Again, if developers are unsure whether a feature would be in violation of the policy, we encourage them to discuss it with Oz Linden.

The policy document itself gives me some personal qualms, as someone who has wrangled such things before from both ends.

“shared experience” – a key term in the new revision – is not defined in the agreement.

Section 8 of the TPV policy – the enforcement section – is probably my least-favourite. I mentally think of it as the “we just make some stuff up” clause, and it taints the whole document with a particular air of unpredictability.

Given two parties to the agreement, the scope, behaviour and obligations of one party (Linden Lab) within the terms of the agreement cannot be determined or predicted by the agreement.

A decade ago, I’d have laughed if anyone had shown me an agreement like that, as it opens up a substantial liability window for the Lab in my opinion (which you should not infer to be any form of legal advice).

Final thoughts

Linden Lab has made little apparent effort to “sell” the policy or policy changes, to explain why they exist, who benefits from them, and why they might be a good thing. Those are questions that I still don’t have the answers to, and that I cannot reasonably begin to speculate on.

A well-documented baseline feature-set, that content-creators could refer to with confidence, would make a lot of sense, and probably be of broad utility and benefit, but there’s nothing like that described here.

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