Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Perma Bans in MMO's: Test case in the courts?

From Game Politics : http://www.gamepolitics.com/2009/07/21/lawsuit-banned-resistance-player-alleges-sony-violated-free-speech-and-stole-his-money

The short version is that a player who was banned from the Playstation Network is suing Sony, describing the ban as theft. The player states that he bought Playstation Points that are non-refundable and that since Sony banned him, they have stolen the money he had spent.

I think most MMO companies, such as NCSoft, Activision, and EA, will be watching this case with interest. If the court decides, rightfully, that the player violated the Terms of Service agreement for the Playstation Network and that Sony was well within their rights to ban the account regardless of how much the player had spent, trolls everywhere will be put on notice that their actions can carry a financial loss.

If the court decides, wrongly, that Terms of Service agreements are meaningless, and that game companies overseeing private networks are not allowed to control access to those private networks, then the message will be sent out that trolls can behave as badly as they want. Legally, there is no recourse of action a game company can take in the US.

One of the key failures in this player's argument is that Sony is breaching his First Admendment rights. Basically, the player is claiming that he can be as vulgar as he wants, as obscene as he wants, and as filthy as he wants... because that's his right to free speech. Well, if I yell FIRE in the middle of a crowded theater or mall, and there isn't one... guess what? That's not protected under free speech.

There are precedents set of what constitutes free speech, and where free speech applies. If you start shouting obscenities in the middle of a crowded mall, Mall Security has every right to come escort you off the premesis, and they can do so under a variety of different reasons. Some security types might file an official complaint that you are disturbing the peace. Other security types might lean on the whole private property rules. Still yet more Security types might point out that obscene language is not covered under Free Speech and then have a restraining order posted.

In the same way, massive multiplayer online networks are private property. As much as some people might not like the idea, World of Warcraft, Everquest, WarHammer Online, City of Heroes, Playstation Network, Xbox Live, and so on... are not public forums. They are private networks that require agreeing to some rules and regulations. Those Terms of Service enable the network administrators to set their own rules about what is appropriate, and what is not appropriate. Some ToS outline some of the steps that might be taken if you break the rules and regulations that have been set.

The hope is that the first judge to get this case laughs this particular player out of the courtroom, not even allowing a jury trial based on the sheer ludicrous nature of the complaint. The hope is that a judge would look at the plaintiff and say something to the effect of You Broke There Rules, Get over it.

The worry is that a judge might be more interested in setting a verdict against Sony, or isn't interested in examining the merits of the complaint or the case itself. In such a case, the ability of network maintainers to provide a safe enviroment for their player base could be greatly diminished, and a ruling in favor of the plaintiff carries the remote possibility of ruining the ability of MMO's to operate inside the US.
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