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The Lawbringer: Privacy talk, rockets, and auction houses

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Running parallel to the games we love and enjoy is a world full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

Hello, friends. While I brainstorm for this week's Lawbringer, I am frantically packing for a little weekend shindig and will need to look my best. Suits and ties, how I've missed you.

When I asked for Lawbringer questions, you guys and girls delivered. I talk about how much I love questions all the time, but it's true. The more questions I get, the more diverse topics get covered. This week, we've got a great question about privacy and the armory, as well as an automation question relating to the terms of service.

Armory and privacy

Our first email comes from Russ, who wants to know about the armory and privacy. I've truncated his email a bit, but be sure that I read everything!
Hello Mr. McCurley,

Thank you for your article in the recent Lawbringer column.

Your timing was perfect for a discussion about player's and their privacy. I've had a question about privacy that was tumbling around in my head after a visit to the new WoW Community site on 12/1/2010.

The newly designed Armory page has the regular items of the current Armory page plus, extra info is now going to be accessible.

All of your points made give us reason for discussion and examination of the topic of privacy in our recreational activity, and living with the internet today.

"What gives Blizzard the right to display our in game activities?"

We are paying Blizzard to have the privilege to play their MMO, and their bills associated with the maintenance of the services they provide.

I understand that a lot of game information about what players are doing in their playtime is analyzed by Blizzard, and is used to help make World of Warcraft a better MMO. Product analysis, it's good for business. It is mentioned being done in the Terms of Service, somewhere, I read it ...... once.

But why is what we do in the game, why is that information, allowed to put out on the internet?

The amusement park analogy seems the best fit to paint a picture for the question.

I go Disney World and pay to get in and get to do all there is to do. If you are in the park and we meet we can talk about what we've seen where we ate, what rides we've waited for, etc. etc. etc.. Then maybe even hang out and visit a few attractions together.

Would you go into Disney World, if, at the gates and in the park, were monitors that posted your name, and the name of each person in the park, and kept a real time listing of what you were doing during your visit? That listed what you ate (most beverage consumed), what rides you rode (Dungeons), when you rode them (Day Completed), and who was in your group ( Guild & Roster ), and more. For everyone in the park, and outside the park to see.

If I am in-game and someone on my server walks up to my character, they can compare achievements (which is a feature that invades privacy too), but they are in the game paying to be there and can talk with me about what I've done if they have a question, if I decide to talk to them.

Personally, I would like to be able to turn of the Armory Display of my WoW Account Characters. It currently is not an option.

I'd like to hear back on the "legality" of our game play being put on the internet, in relation to what is currently being done by Blizzard.

Thank you very much for your time and any insight you can provide.

Sincerely,
Russ

Thanks for the email, Russ. There are a surprising number of games these days that display achievements in a public fashion. Services like Xbox Live show your Gamerscore and achievements, and others even display what you're playing, like Steam. Most of these services or games have ways around displaying this information, while the WoW armory does not have a way to stop the flow of information.

Here's the big wrench that I see being thrown in the privacy argument over the armory: While the armory data is public, the associated real-life information is not. You can know my user name, Battle.net ID, or the server that I play on, but there is no searchable way to figure out which characters are mine without my telling you. You cannot type "Mat McCurley" into the armory and get a list of all of my characters.

Blizzard owns the data that it collects from the game and can do what it wants with it. According to the Blizzard privacy policy, your personal information is only used internally for demographic purposes, sending you updates and emails, and to add third-party information to those updates.

The Disneyland comparison does not really work in this case because Blizzard isn't displaying your real name or personal information on the armory. Your character's personal information is being displayed. Now, we have to ask what rights you have regarding your avatars. Your first step is to read the venerable Raph Koster's manifesto from 2000 on avatar rights to get a feel for where avatar rights as a concept materialized. Do avatars have rights? Should we start expecting a modicum of avatar rights as more and more business is transacted in a virtual world? Actually, that's a Lawbringer in and of itself ...

According to the terms of use, you don't own anything about your characters, since you're paying for a license to use a service and have no ownership rights.

The whole reason the "real name" Real ID issue was attacked so vehemently by the community was because of the needed disconnect between the player's characters and their real names. Without personal knowledge of a person, it is not easy to figure out what characters they play, unless they do not block out their character names from screenshots or they outright tell you who they are.

All of the privacy arguments break down, however, when law enforcement is involved. Blizzard has made it clear that it will provide account information and character data when served with a subpoena to do so. Blizzard has even been responsible for catching criminals by finding out where they were logging into the game from. There are provisions in the terms of use that stipulate that Blizzard may provide this personal information to law enforcement.

As for the armory, a player's privacy comes down to what type of privacy you are upset over. Your personal privacy, including your name, Battle.net ID, credit card information, and all associated account information, are all protected and do not show up anywhere on the armory. However, your character data, much like your items, gold, inventory, and everything in between, are all part of the service that you pay to play. While it might be a nice gesture to allow the ability to turn off the Armory feed, the things your character does in game might not actually fall under any kind of personal privacy because, in terms of being in-game, you're in the game's definition of public.

Sold!
Mat,

This is kind of a side question from the gold selling, and botting issues that have come up lately.

If it's against the Terms of Service to run a program to automate herb gathering, mining or such (archeology being the most recent offender) -- and also against the TOS to sell gold -- then why is it acceptable to automate auction house processes?

That just bakes my noodle. I would imagine that automated auction house programs would impact the community as much, if not more, automating those other actions in game.

So, in short, what sets auction house automation apart from those other aspects of the game which will get folks the ban hammer?

Thanks,

Don
There are two types of auction house automation that we can examine. First, there's the automation of gathering price data and addons that suggest prices for you to use to sell and undercut your wares on the open market. Second, there is the automation of placing items on the auction house for you at preplanned costs.

The second type of auctioneering has been removed from the game and from addons completely. You can only make multiple auctions at a time with the in-game stacks/auctions tool and its associated addon mechanics. Without the help of a third-party program to click buttons for you, putting up auctions or bidding on auctions is impossible to do. The Warden is also most likely watching for automation programs, and those types of programs are already against the terms of service. Bots get banned, and that's basically the only way to fully automate that procedure.

The first type of auctioneering, however, is just simple math. I say "simple" because the addon is acting as a calculator, looking at numbers on the auction house and, based on a set of parameters, giving you number recommendations. That kind of automation isn't doing anything physical for you; rather, doing the math is an extension of the information already available. At least that is how I see the delineation. I could do these math problems with the in-game data if I wanted to with or without an addon, but I couldn't automate my auctions by myself without some external help.

Rocketman
Hi there Lawbringer,
I have kind of an oddball question. I've recently been noticing a huge increase of spamming in trade chat with people wanting to sell the X-53 Touring Rocket. Now since this is the recruit-a-friend gift mount, it's obvious they're trying to sell a recruit-a-friend. Is this against the ToS? I'd imagine it is since in effect their trading in game gold for a virtual item. It almost to me seems to all under the selling of an account, but I'll fully admit I have no clue.

Thank you,
ParadoxF

I don't believe that we've had an official word from Blizzard about the Recruit-A-Friend rocket specifically, but this whole transaction most likely falls under selling game time for gold. When you pay for two months of service to earn the X-53 rocket, you are granted a free month of service in addition to the rocket, which is most likely where the issue comes up. However, this transaction looks less like the cut-and-dry, real money transactions that occur in gold selling. Personally, I would love to see Blizzard comment on this if it hasn't already.

The real concern, however, is where all of these game time cards and copies of the game are coming from. I would be cautious of purchasing one of these rockets from the trade chat because the game time cards could very well be stolen from a game shop, which is not cool!

See you all next week.

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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