Wielding the Xbox 'banhammer'

Stephen Toulouse has gone from squashing bugs to policing the Xbox Live online service. In an interview, Toulouse discussed how his old gig helped preparing him for a new generation of threats.

Ina Fried Former Staff writer, CNET News
During her years at CNET News, Ina Fried changed beats several times, changed genders once, and covered both of the Pirates of Silicon Valley.
Ina Fried
5 min read

In his role heading policy and enforcement for Xbox live, Stephen Toulouse is widely known for wielding the "banhammer"--that is being the guy who comes down on cheaters and those who harass people over the online service.

Toulouse said he is starting to shy away from the banhammer moniker, given that he and his team employ a range of punishments, from the temporary suspension of a feature all the way up to permanent ban of all users of a particular console. But, he said, as an avid gamer, he is enjoying his role trying to keep Xbox Live as a fun and safe space.

Toulouse Stephen Toulouse

"It's nice to get to protect people in a new way," Toulouse said in an interview. Before taking over as top Xbox cop, Toulouse worked in Microsoft's Security Response Center and trustworthy computing unit, handling the flaws in Microsoft's products and the resulting security outbreaks they caused.

In some ways, life has changed little for Toulouse since he switched to the Xbox role in August 2007. He's just fighting different kinds of bad guys.

Whereas Microsoft has a large team of people scouring the Internet for reports of security holes, it also has a team of five or six dozen people that are playing Xbox Live at any given time, looking for any type of problems.

"There's always a segment of the population that is going to be miscreant," he said. Still, he said, at any given time just one-twentieth of one percent of all those using the online service have a complaint registered against them. "It's a tiny fraction of the overall interactions."

Toulouse said he relies on the lessons he learned while trying to protect Microsoft customers from bugs that exploited its flaws.

"I carry with me from the MSRC (Microsoft Security Response Center) days that concept of how can this feature be misused or how can this capability be misused," he said.

Cheating is one of the issues that he deals with, though Toulouse said that is somewhat limited given the closed nature of the Xbox as compared with, say, the PC. Most of the issues come around exploiting a flaw in game's map, say a place that one can go where they can shoot other characters but not be hit themselves.

Probably the area he spends the most time policing isn't in any game at all. It's overseeing the regulation of what people put in their gamer tags and profiles.

"They have 255 characters," Toulouse said. "They can say a lot of things."

The company not only responds to complaints but is also constantly working on expanding its lexicon to include new slang for the terms and subjects that it bans. Urban Dictionary, Wikipedia, and other places help the company keep up to date.

"We spend a lot of time researching those terms," Toulouse said. "It's a huge and fast-moving world in terms of how slang develops."

One of the specific issues that has cropped up under Toulouse's watch is the issue of whether and how users can identify their gender identity and sexual orientation. The issue gained some measure of attention starting last summer after several users were prohibited from referencing a gay identity in their gamer tags.

Microsoft's current practice is to ban any discussion of sexuality in either tags or profiles--a move that makes it impossible for those gamers who want to identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender to do so.

In part, Toulouse said, that's because 98 percent of those who have tried to use the term gay have done so not as a means of self-identification but by using the word as a put down.

But for someone who wants to be more than a "banhammer," Toulouse acknowledges just prohibiting all reference to sexuality isn't much of a solution.

"I think what we have today is inelegant," he said, adding that he is working on an improvement, but he still doesn't have a timetable for when a better option will be in place. That's basically the same position he took when the company addressed the issue in February.

"I haven't made a change to date but I am committed to making a change," Toulouse said. "We hear very clearly that customers wish to express this."

Toulouse said that part of the reason it has taken so long is that the company is looking at changing not just the policy but also the profile technology, perhaps adding check boxes where people could include their gender identity or sexual orientation and perhaps other characteristics as well.

"That's the thinking we are leaning toward," he said, adding that no final decision has been made.

This past weekend, Toulouse was in San Francisco for a panel discussion on the role of homophobia in virtual worlds--an issue that more than just Microsoft is trying to grapple with. More than 100 people turned out for the discussion, which was sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and also included representatives of Electronic Arts, Linden Labs, the Entertainment Software Association, and Flynn DeMarco, founder of gaygamer.net.

GLAAD's Justin Cole said that it is not surprising that it is taking Microsoft time to come up with a workable solution to what is clearly a big problem.

"For a system as big as Xbox Live to be able to change something isn't as simple as just a flip of the switch," Cole said.

Another issue for Toulouse and team is educating parents about the need to set controls for their children's use of the Xbox. With other game consoles, the biggest issues are often deciding which games a child can play and for how long.

Many parents aren't aware of a potentially bigger decision that comes with the Xbox. Because it runs online and has chatting capabilities, parents also need to decide with whom their child can communicate online. With Xbox Live, users can get text and audio messages, as well as pictures.

"Those capabilities, like any capabilities, can be misused," Toulouse said. By default, accounts set up for under-18 users turn off the chat capabilities, but many teens set up their own consoles and decide to make create adult accounts, which allow all such messages by default.

Parents often think about these issues when it comes to their children's computer use, but don't always think about having similar rules for things like the Xbox. To try to make parents aware, Microsoft has launched a "Get Game Smart" Web site as well as recruiting a number of online parents and teens to serve as "ambassadors" to their less savvy counterparts.

It's a lot more complicated than when he was young and his parents could just take away the power cord if he wasn't allowed to use his Atari home computer. However, he got an early taste of how to cheat the system--saving up his money and buying an extra power cord from a local electronics store.