LAYING DOWN THE LAW: THE NOTARY PUBLIC OF THYRIS
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."