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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Illinois "Pidgey's Law" an Overly Hasty, Muddled Attempt at Regulating Augmented Reality

Several news outlets have reports on this bill (AB 6601) recently introduced by Illinois State Representative Kelly Cassidy. Nicknamed "Pidgey's Law," the bill was introduced in response to reports that players of the augmented reality game, Pokémon Go, were trampling the habitats of endangered species in a federal park.

From the Chicago Sun Times:
Cassidy introduced “Pidgey’s Law” on Wednesday during a news conference at the Loyola Dunes Restoration Site. Named after one of the game’s bird Pokémon, the bill aims to crack down on location-based game developers to remove problematic gaming sites from their maps.
. . .  
If passed, “Pidgey’s Law” would give game developers up to two days to remove a location-specific site from its game if that site’s property owner, manager or custodian requests its removal. After that, developers would be fined up to $100 each day until the stop is removed. 
The bill is in response to a Pokéstop — real-life locations gamers can visit for in-game perks — that rests at the center of the dune restoration area, which is protected under state and federal law. The stop, based on an art installation that stood there a few years back, sometimes draws players off the designated path into areas where some endangered wildlife lives. 
The hundreds of Pokémon Go players who frequent the area each night have caused increased littering and vandalism as well as occasional trampling of the wildlife when rare Pokémon appear in the augmented reality of the game.
Other news outlets report on the bill here, here, and here. A common theme in all of this reporting is that the purpose of the bill is to remove in-game landmarks (in Pokémon Go these are known as Gyms and PokéStops) from private property or environmentally sensitive areas at the request of property owners or managers.

But is this what the bill actually does? Below are the pertinent sections of the bill. To make efficient use of these extensive quotes, I've emphasized the terms that are either undefined or that cause problems:

Section 10. Site or location removal. 
(a) Within 2 business days of receiving a request from the real property owner, manager, or custodian, the developer of a location-based video game shall remove from its location-based video game an ecologically sensitive site or location, historically significant site or location, site or location on private property, or site or location otherwise deemed as dangerous by the real property owner, manager, or custodian.

(b) In requesting that a site or location be removed from the location-based video game, the requesting property owner, manager, or custodian shall submit a request to the developer of a location-based video game that specifies in sufficient detail the site or location to be removed from the game, and reason for the requested removal. 
Section 15. Removal procedure.  
The developer of a location-based video game shall provide an easily accessible procedure for removal of ecologically sensitive sites or locations, historically significant sites or locations, sites or locations on private property, or sites or locations otherwise deemed as dangerous by the real property owner, manager, or custodian from its location-based video game. 
Section 20. Enforcement.
(a) A real property owner, manager, or custodian may bring a civil action to enforce the provisions of this Act. 
(b) A developer of a location-based video game who knowingly violates this Act is subject to a civil fine of up to $100 for each day of violation.
The bill includes a few definitions, but not enough:

Section 5. Definitions. For the purposes of this Act: 
"Developer of a location-based video game" means any person or business entity which has made or developed and owns the rights to a location-based video game, including any person or business entity which acquires the controlling intellectual property rights to the location-based video game from another person or business entity. 
"Ecologically sensitive site or location" means any area designated by federal, State, or unit of local government for protection from development or damage due to the presence of endangered species or threatened species as defined in Section 2 of the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Act. 
"Historically significant site or location" means any site or location that has been designated by federal, State, or unit of local government for preservation as a landmark, or any other site or location that the federal, State, or unit of local government may designate as historically significant. 
"Location-based video game" means a game primarily played on a mobile device, including, but not limited to, smartphones and tablets, that encourages users to travel to specific real property sites, locations, or coordinates for the purpose of achieving specific goals within the game.
The biggest problem with the bill is that it fails to define "site or location," much less what it means to "remove" a "site or location" from a location-based video game. While the phrase may make sense in the context of the physical world, in the context of an augmented reality game the phrase is fatally unclear. Should the game developer remove a feature from the game's map, such as a PokéStop, Gym, or in-game landmark? Or does the phrase refer to property or coordinates in the physical world -- thereby requiring the developer to remove a set of coordinates or location from the in-game map altogether?

I very much suspect that the bill intends to remove landmarks and features that only exist within the augmented reality of the game. But by failing to write a law that expresses this intent, developers are left with the much more expansive mandate that they modify their games' maps to entirely remove the coordinates and features of locations that fall under the bill's scope, which, I suspect, would be far more difficult than removing in-game features alone.

I also flagged vague language throughout the bill, such as the requirement that a request "specifies in sufficient detail" the location to be removed (sufficient by what measure?); the definition of a location-based video game as a game that "encourages" players to go to locations to achieve "specific goals" (is the random generation of a catchable digital creature on a map "specific" enough?); and a site or location "deemed as dangerous" by a property owner, manager, or custodian (does this mean that the property itself is dangerous, or that the placement of an in-game landmark leads to danger?).

And let's not overlook the bill's muddled and contradictory definition of "Developer of a location-based video game." The definition (initially) purports to cover only those who develop and own the rights to the game, but then goes on to say that this includes those who acquire the ownership rights from another. This second, acquiring class, only has one of the necessary features of the initial definition, but is deemed to be covered by the definition through the use of the term "including." This definition is contradictory and does violence to the term "including," and should therefore be done away with.

Finally, setting aside the muddled text of the bill, there does not seem to be a pressing need for it. Niantic has a system for requesting removal of PokéStops or Gyms from the game. While there appears to have been a breakdown in communication or administration in the case of one park, this hardly warrants the passage of a law mandating a feature that already exists -- albeit now with the inclusion of an arbitrary two-day deadline. 

Representative Cassidy, like Senators Klein and Savino of New York, is proposing an overly broad, overly strict solution to an exaggerated problem. Hopefully, the rest of the Illinois legislature is less-willing to jump on the bandwagon of hastily drafted laws governing augmented reality games.

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