Monday, September 24, 2018

Looking Back at Emeraldgate

By Bixyl Shuftan

2010 was a year that saw many things happen to Second Life. There was the layoff of almost a third of Linden Lab's staff, including some noteable Lindens. There was the resignation of M Linden as CEO, and the temporary return of Philip Linden as interum CEO. There was the decision to merge the Teen Grid with the rest of Second Life. And then, there was "Emeraldgate," a scandal which brought down the first popular third-party viewer.

To begin with, after years of using what would later be called Viewer 1, Linden Lab rolled out V2 in 2010. But most residents found it awkward to use, and continued to use Viewer 1, the V1 based "Snowstorm" viewer which was developed as an open source project with approval from the Lab, and third-party viewers, the most popular which was Emerald, owned by Modular Systems. But Linden Lab's Third Party viewer policy was so poorly written, even Linden viewers were technically in violation. So the Lab made a deal with Emerald that allowed them to operate without worry

But not everyone was happy. There were stories that a few on the team had checkered pasts. But most ignored them, or at least put them aside. Then in  August 2010, one of the team, Lord Greggreg, stepped down from the team. He stated there were abuses by the team, notably slipping in code that made the viewer vulnerable to intrusion, “Emerald is no longer what it was to me. I have been dedicating ... my time to the project for nearly two years now, and it’s been difficult to see it go the way it has.” But a few days later, Qarl Fizz, the former Qarl Linden, joined the team. With the man who had been one of Second Life's most enthusiastic supporters now on the Emerald team, that seemed to help bolster Team Emerald's case that Lord Greggreg was a "minor ex-developer" who couldn't agree with the team,“You can be assured that Emerald will maintain it’s high standard of integrity, honesty and ethics that have contributed to it’s development.”

Then on August 20, there was a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on the website of a critic of the Emerald viewer, who was saying "the Emerald Client was leaking potentially user-identifying information." It turned out that any computer online at the time with the Emerald viewer on was part of the attack. Emerald's Arabella Steadham tried to minimize the seriousness of the incident, admitting to "shenanigans," but denied this was the work of more than one person on the team, “The method for doing this was to add links to the Emerald log in page linked to said blog. Each time anyone logged in, our page loaded up and also the other page loaded up – simply to show off our volume of traffic. This was not a DDoS. This was a poor attempt at boasting that failed miserably. Once we discovered this, these links were deleted and the dev concerned was disciplined.” Two days later on August 22, Fractured Crystal made a statement on the Emerald blog, calling what happened the result of tinkering with the viewer out of boredom and then forgetting about it, and stepped down from the team.

Linden Lab had been quiet for the first couple days, then later on the same day of Fracture's confession and stepping down, it took Emerald down from it's list of preferred viewers. Two days later on August 24, it ended it's silence with a statement on "Malicious Viewers and Our Third-Party Viewer Policy," clearly calling what happened a Denial of Service attack, "We have removed Emerald from the list of third-party viewers, and are now in touch with the Emerald team to discuss what can happen next. We did this to do our best to protect the safety and security of Second Life users. We will not tolerate a viewer that includes malicious code ..." They went on say that they encouraged residents to use another viewer, either theirs or Third-Party, other than Emerald. Modular Systems stated they "“received a large list of requirements and conditions" from the Lab, going on to say they intended to go through with all of them "as soon as we possibly can," saying some were more difficult than others and would take time.

Between Team Emerald's "shenanigans," and Linden Lab's responses, there were no shortage of rumors about what the Lab might do next. One was the Lab would on short notice ban all use of the Emerald Viewer and ban anyone caught using it. Calmer voices responded if the Lab did block the viewer, it wouldn't ban the users, at least not without warning. After the DoS attack, many Emerald users naturally ditched it and either reluctantly began using the cumbersome Linden Viewer 2.0 or other third-party viewers such as Imprudence or Lord Greggreg's "Emergence" viewer. But a fraction of Emerald's users remained loyal, stubbornly refusing to let it go.

A few days later on September 1, there was a statement on the Modular Systems blog that the team would soon be folding, and there was an attempt at a "takeover" from within. Later, the blog would point out Jessica Lyon as the person behind the attempted takeover.  This was something of a surprise, as Arabella and Jessica appeared together on an SL media broadcoast a few days before to defend Emerald and give it's point of view together. Jessica responded by starting her own blog and gave her point of view of what happened. Of Linden Lab's list of demands, the one that Team Emerald had a problem with was that three of the team step down: Lonely Bluebird (Phox), Skills Hak, and Discrete Dreamscape. According to Jessica, Skills and Discrete were willing to do so. But Lonely refused to go. Jessica's blog gave details of a conversation between she and him in which she pleaded with him to step down to save the team, "staying means your willing to kill Emerald. How can you be that selfish? ... I can’t believe you’re willing to kill this project just because of.. well, I don’t know why?" But Lonely wouldn't budge, "Well, when you figure it out, let me know. ... I don’t care at all." Jessica did say she was trying to "find a way to forcibly remove him from the team in order for emerald to comply with LL’s requirements. Now if you want to call that a 'take over', your free to do so."

On September 3, Jessica announced she had been assembling a new team of viewer developers, some whom had been with Emerald, some from outside, but "All are respected reputable residents in the Second Life Community." "From the ashes, the Phoenix has risen," Jessica proclaimed, and branded the new viewer "Phoenix."

A few days later on September 7, Linden Lab announced the Emerald Viewer would be blocked from accessing Second Life the following day, "As of 10am PT Wednesday, September 8, the Emerald Viewer will be blocked from logging in to Second Life as a result of violations of our Policy on Third Party Viewers. Residents who have been using any version of the Emerald Viewer will need to use a different Viewer to access Second Life. ... We take Residents’ privacy, safety, and security very seriously and will take action to enforce the policies that help protect it." Linden Lab also warned that attempts to get around the blockage with an Emerald Viewer was a bannable offense. Also on September 7, Linden Lab added Phoenix and Emergence to their list of approved third-party viewers.

Talking to a friend about this time, he told me he knew ahead of time Emerald was going to be banned from use on Second Life. He had been listening to BBC radio, and at one point they talked about Second Life and the Emerald scandal. Linden Lab could afford to be a little lax with Team Emerald as long as all discussion of the problems were within the circle of Second Life users, he told me. But once the trouble was being talked about in mainstream media, it's reputation was now on the line and would have to take action.

Arabella Steadham, whom had taken on the role of Modular Systems' Communications Manager, did not see it that way at all. She reacted very badly to Linden Lab's announcement by writing an angry post full of rants and insults, the professionalism she had shown up until then stripped away. She attacked rival viewers, she attacked her former teammates whom had defected to Phoenix, and she repeatedly attacked Linden Labs. She ranted the “dunderheaded buffoons” of the “pond-sized American company” had bullied them for no reason other than their viewer being more popular than theirs, and the blocking of it’s use was part of some underhanded conspiracy to force the users to use Viewer 2.0. Second Life, she branded, had no future among virtual worlds except as a backwater.

The following day, Arabella announced that Linden Labs had terminated her account. Banned. She made a few more words defending her rights and branding Linden Labs as dictatorial “Thought Police,” warning readers they could be thrown out for the slightest criticism. Then basically stated she no longer wanted to be part of Second Life. According to an article in the Herald, Phox, the Team Emerald member whose refusal to resign led to several members quitting and forming Phoenix, was also banned. Fractured Crystal, the member who resigned following the Distributed Denial of Service Attack, was not banned but apparently vanished on his own.

Effectively banished from Second Life, Arabella and what was left of Modular Systems had signed up with Utherverse, which boasted “a Virtual World Web of interconnected 3D communities." But of their virtual worlds, only the X-rated "Red Light District" had gotten much attention. Of the people I talked to, most hadn't heard of it. The one person who had wasn't impressed, feeling Utherverse was so eager to get more users they were not stopping to think of the potential damage that could be done. The chance that they could rise above being a backwater, to borrow Arabella’s word for what she saw as SL’s future, was just too tempting. But he felt “the real battle is in SL,” reminding that there were still these Emerald viewers with “spoofers” to get around the Emerald ban.

After that, "Emeraldgate" began to fade from the headlines. With stories such as the development of mesh, limited access to Second Life by teens as young as 13, Linden Lab ending it's discount to non-profit sims, rumors of Microsoft considering a buyout of the Lab, Philip Rosedale stepping down as interum CEO, and others, the residents had many other things to concern themselves about. Most of Team Emerald whom had gotten in trouble were never heard from again. A few years later, there was a rumor Fractured Crystal was being considered for a position on the development team of an Opensim world, but nothing ever came of it. If there were Emerald users who were so loyal they gave up on Second Life, they were very few in number as there was no great change in it's numbers. Nor did Utherverse did the boost it hoped for, remaining in obscurity. Skills Hak avoided the Linden banhammer during Emeraldgate, and would go on to help found the Insilico sci-fi roleplaying community. But the controversial figure would be banned in 2016.

Hamlet Au, whom had once been Linden Lab's embedded reporter, felt that Emeraldgate proved that the only viewers residents could trust were those with real-world names behind them, the Linden viewers "with avatar-to-avatar trust so thoroughly broken in this case." Indeed considering some decisions before and since by Linden Lab, such as the third-party currency exchanger ban, they could easily have decided to block all third-party viewers. But they didn't, possibly due in part to most residents were still passing up their viewer in favor of third-party ones. Because Jessica Lyon and part of Team Phoenix had been part of Emerald, there were a few whom had doubts about the team's integrity. But most people did not harbor such feelings. Jessica and Phoenix quickly won the hearts and minds of Second Life residents, the viewer quickly becoming the most popular of Second Life users.

Team Phoenix, later known as Team Firestorm after it made the decision to retire it's first viewer in favor of the Firestorm Viewer which had code based more on the Lab's existing viewer, would have some challenges over time. But over the past eight years they never get into anything remotely like the trouble Emerald had. Indeed they've been quite open to the public, with Jessica taking part in many conferences. They've also established a support center for newcomer residents. Eight years later, the development team is going as well as ever, and so is their support from the residents.

Sources: Jessica Lyon, Dwell on It, New World Notes, SL Wikia, SL Newspaper, Lord Greggreg, Alphaville Herald

Bixyl Shuftan

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