As Sauron’s burning eye turns to the shire …

Well, this is news:

At the behest of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission is looking into children’s access to explicit content in virtual worlds.

There is even more news and analysis at Virtual Worlds News, along with good comments (including one from Miss Emilly Orr, who has been confronting these issues for quite a while, and with much clarity and passion).  According to the story:

The researchers are tasked with looking at the environment virtual worlds present to children and, specifically, the access they present to explicit content and measures taken to prevent that access.

The report was prompted by the FTC appropriations bill passed by Congress in March 2009, which noted, in part, that “[c]oncerns have been raised regarding reports of explicit content that can be easily accessed by minors on increasingly popular virtual reality web programs.”   

As for the danger of virtual worlds to potential teen users, the author adds:

My ultimate argument was that you’re more likely to see a 12-year-old sneaking into a teen world than a teen sneaking into an adult world like Second Life. And then they’re more likely to be confronted by cyber-bullies or adult predators (and even that’s not been shown to be incredibly likely) than graphic depictions of sex or violence, especially compared to the broader Web.

Will the FTC come to the same conclusion?  If it does, will Congress listen?  Let’s hope on the latter question — the FTC has been unquestionably fierce on the issue of protecting children’s personal information from exploitation online and has been at the forefront of enforcement of COPPA.  But there is little reason why they should be motivated to go on a bogeyman hunt (unlike certain Congresscritters, say …).  May cool heads prevail.

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