Tuesday, October 04, 2005


Creating your own virtual John Hancock-- notarized and XML-enabled.

If you want a government that's for the Residents, by the Residents, do you call an in-world Constitutional Convention and begin drafting a grand document for a majority to ratify-- or do you just start by figuring out how to stamp a contract?

"I had read some posts in the [Second Life] Forums about various ideas for self-government," Zarf Vantongerloo explains. "There are tons of ideas floating around there, of course. What struck me was that everyone was talking abut major systems to put in place. And I thought I saw some very small things that could be done. Baby steps. And what was underlying them all was the ability to sign documents-- a notary."

After studying some guides on notarization, Vantongerloo set out to create just that. Nota Bene in Thyris provides notarization service for any document you and other parties wish to sign-- and perhaps almost as important, a roof over your head, while you do it.

"[Y]ou write your document on a notecard," Zarf tells me, after I type my name into a sample document that he co-signed, then refers me to a long panel. "Just drag it onto the desk. You'll see, it'll produce a notarized copy with names and signatures."

Once placed there, the Notary Desk begins chirruping in green text: "Examining the document.... Notarizing signatures...contacting notary agent...authenticating..."

"Alas," says Zarf during a brief lull, "this part takes a few minutes. There is a fair bit of cryptography involved. But the biggest reason is that it must securely interact with an off-world server." When the transaction is complete, the Desk spits out a receipt that ends in an obscure jumble of code. "That pile of gibberish at the bottom is the cyrptographic signature of the notary," he says. "The notary needs to protect against two kinds of fraud: one, people claiming a notarization that isn't real and two, people changing the document text. The cryptography is used not to conceal things, but to prove that neither of these things has occured."

Near the Notary Desk is a Verify Desk, which does that very thing, and after you submit your notarized document, pops out a receipt stating so. "The text of the document is submitted to a process called 'digest'," he says. "If you change the document text in any way, the digest changes. The digest is what has been signed by the notary. So if you alter the document the digest changes and the signature in the receipt won't check out. This is," he adds wryly, "even safe against paranoid scenarios like the Lindens altering the asset database behind your back!"

"So really," I observe, "the only possible flaw in all this is whether everyone trusts you and your code, right?"

".... which is true of any notary," Zarf replies. "In real life, the state makes you take a test and you [do] some reporting requirements-- but you have to trust that the notary down the street isn't faking your signatures on things. So yes, you have to trust me to not create fake notarizations." He says his code is open source and verifiable in common software packages like OpenSSL, so "the only part of my code you need to trust is how I ensure that my communications are tamper proof..."

"I guess the real challenge is when two signees have a dispute," I suggest.

"Yes, Zarf nods. "When I get called in to show they did or didn't sign, and that text was or wasn't changed. It could be the parties themselves. iI could be a mediator, if they agreed to mediation... There is a mediators group-- SL Mediators. They have put out a guidbook to mediation, how the process works and they encourage people to agree in advance to mediation and put it in their signed documents." In his view, the act of signing with a mediator actually makes the need for using their services less likely. "It's like when Dear Abby says you should sign a lease when your adult son moves back home after college! The act of writing it out makes you think clearer."

In the couple weeks he's been open for business, Zarf Vantongerloo has had three clients, charging about L$100 per notarization. "And I've had dozens of visitors," he adds. "It is a slow start kind of business: people have to learn you exist, then wait for the next time they have a need for such a thing, and then remember you're here!" He actually isn't able to read the text of contracts signed, though he is able to read their titles. "Some are building contracts, and the other was unclear... perhaps an agreement between two parties for land use. Or it might have been group-related-- I've had some interest from groups in using it. Group officers can do things like sign oaths on how they'll spend donations or use land."

Though a coder by trade, Zarf Vantongerloo believes he's learned enough in this process to become an actual notary. His ambitions, however, are more far-reaching than that.

"There are provisions in the real life law that seem to rule out even the possibilty of a virtual notary. though I'm sure over time that will change-- perhaps this notary will be the impetus..." I point out that contracts submitted by e-mail are already considered binding in courts.

As for the roof that now stands over the contract submission desk, that's also part of this notarization system. Originally, there was no roof. (As a new Resident, Zarf still has trouble navigating through doorways, so built a place without them.) "But the first few people who tried the notary.. felt weird to be signing a document in such an open setting... they felt exposed. They acted with trepidation. They said, 'Feels too open.' I'm fascinated how many real life emotional responses cary over to Second Life."

"[T]he idea that you need to be in a private place to sign something," I offer.

"Yes," says Zarf Vantongerloo. That this act is more serious than others. Which is as it should be."

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This notary service is such a cool idea. Thank Flying Spaghetti Monster for our brilliant residents! This really adds the needed functionality for in-world business contracts. Digital contracts are the future.

Posted by: Satchmo Prototype at Oct 4, 2005 5:14:05 PM

Perhaps Zarf could make it easier for Residents to write their contracts by providing some boilerplate examples for the most common types of agreements that he sees comming through his office. I know that I would find the task of writing a good contract much more difficult than understanding one already written. I thank the Flying Spagetti Monster for giving me this idea.

Posted by: Andrew Linden at Oct 7, 2005 6:22:04 AM

I already do! Come to Nota Bene, touch any of the signage, and you'll be presented with the notary help dialog. One of the options is 'Samples', which will give you a notecard that contains more than a half dozen example contracts.

Posted by: Zarf Vantongerloo at Oct 7, 2005 7:08:16 AM

Zarf's service is vital and potentially revolutionary. It ends the problem of forged signatures and revised notecarded agreements in SL -- which was all too easily done and caused damage. There's also the possibility that notecarded conversations which a person makes or agrees to make with another person or persons could then be notarized and stand as a validated document, no longer to be impugned. Only the Lindens have had that power up until now to claim authenticity of chat history. It remains to be tested whether they will invoke their TOS regulations if anyone takes a validated chat record to present to a court of law, the press, etc. (currently this is a bannable offense but may prove important in the event of "national importance" or major public interest.

In other countries of the world, notaries play some of the role of lawyers in the US and are much more involved in the real estate and construction business -- they are not just verifiers of signatures as they often are in the US but are helping the transaction close.

The major flaw in Zarf's project, however, is that he himself is in SL Mediators, and he has also hog-tied SL Mediators to Note Bene, which IMHO should be completely independent to build up credibility.

Encouraging notary users to include within their agreement the use of SL Mediators also creates one of these closed feted circles for which SL is famous. SL Mediators is a secret organization that does not publish its members (although due to the way the group tools work, anyone who is a member has that group on his profile). That means while this group, its members and its decisions are secret, everyone else using the Note Bene service has to let their business be known to these secret masters in SL Mediators.

It all comes down to trust, and that's not scalable.
One can imagine huge real estate, construction, etc. deals passing through their hands, and them subsequently being in a considerably leveraged advantageous position over other players in terms of their own businesses outside SL Mediators.

I hope to blog myself soon about the problem with too much fascination with mediation -- it makes violator and violated equivalent, and there are certain situations when that shouldn't be done, so as not to eradicate the reality of damages that need to be compensated or remedied, not washed away.

It also elevates the mediators themselves to privileged positions where they begin to view the disputing parties as the problem because they are embroiled in a dispute, and themselves as a solution merely because they are mediators, when sometimes the solution is that one egregiously violating party needs to be sanctioned -- and even by Lindens for the sake of the common good.

Not having the mediation decisions public also doesn't help to build up the rhetorical precedent we need in SL, and doesn't help to spread best practices. Of course, every private corporation or person may wish to make use of private mediation services, and that's their right, but that means this institution itself and its possibly useful decisions are also hidden from public oversight.

It's yet another example of how the vagaries of law and justice in the virtual world are spawning a closed, special, privileged society of masters who hold the fate of others in their hands by holding their identies, information, disputes, even dollar amounts of deals -- and the promise of salvation through mediation.

When this is *all* there is in a world, it has the potential for growing oppressive.

See my blog for future commentary.

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at Oct 10, 2005 5:49:00 PM

I wish to correct a piece of misinformation in Prokofy's comment: Using the notary does not require you to use SL Mediators' services, nor does it disclose your documents or your notarizations to that group.

Use of SL Mediators' mediation service, Judges Mason and Churchill's court, or anyone other groups' service is totally at the option of the parties involved in a document.

Posted by: Zarf Vantongerloo at Oct 13, 2005 1:22:18 PM

Zarf is in fact the one who has now introduced misinformation. I haven't written any "misinformation". I *didn't* say the notary service *requires* the use of SL Mediators, here's what I wrote, visible right above: "Encouraging notary users to include within their agreement the use of SL Mediators also creates one of these closed feted circles for which SL is famous." The word used is "encouraging" -- not requiring. It's very troublesome that Zarf would wish to misrepresent what I wrote, when it's so clearly stated right here on the blog.

"Encouraging" and "not requiring" regardless -- it has a strong impact when you are using a service, and then it tells you right on the card that you can incorporate mediation right
into your agreement (and many people will think "why not?" and rush to do it because it "sounds good"). There's no separation between the two; indeed, the guy running the notary, Zarf, is also in SL Mediators.

We have only Zarf's word that the traffic coming through his service and SL Mediators never leads to any kind of disclosures, and is never misused to gain advantage in the game of Second Life. As always with SL, it merely comes down to a matter of trust, and I have ample, ample reason to distrust SL Mediators.

That's the problem with institutions that emerge in a "society" in which there is no real separation of powers, no checks and balances, no real branches of government. The "judicial branch" just sprang up full-blown without any legislative or executive branch to check it (other than the obvious Linden powers to shut down anything -- and indeed they exercised them to get the court to rename itself).

I think we all must be *extremely wary* of residents setting up legal and judicial entities that purport to pass judgement on other residents, to arrogate themselves to positions of "mediators" above disputing parties, to characterize themselves as "solutions" to problems that they may themselves be creating. We have absolutely no knowledge of how all this information is used *because SL Mediators is secret*.

It's very aggravating to me that such a hugely important development as creating the ability to generate accurate and true notecarded, notarized documents has not been allowed to stand alone, but instead has been accompanied by this misstep of merging this function too closely to a secretive organization with a definite agenda.

Just notarize the documents and record the agreements. Don't undermine the value of a solemn pledge by bringing about fake reconciliations that step on the notion of a solemn pledge in the first place.

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at Oct 17, 2005 12:00:10 AM

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at Oct 17, 2005 12:00:10 AM

"I *didn't* say the notary service *requires* the use of SL Mediators [...]"

Posted by: Prokofy Neva at Oct 10, 2005 5:49:00 PM

"[...] everyone else using the Note Bene service has to let their business be known to these secret masters in SL Mediators."

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Wow. You are ahead of the real world man. I run a mobile notary business in real life, and online/digital notarizations are still years away from being practical.

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