Is the metaverse ethically and legally prepared?
Although it will take a few years to achieve the much-talked-about metaverse concept, we are witnessing the first stirrings of what this universal digital universe could mean.
Microsoft has already acquired Activision Blizzard for $70 billion, Meta has invested $10 billion to acquire and develop virtual reality capabilities, and Google has created a private equity fund of nearly $40 million for metaverse projects. It is obvious that the tech giants are supporting the development of this world and that it will be part of our daily lives in the medium-term future. Still, the brakes need to be put on when thinking about a reproduction of the movie ‘Ready Player One’ in the short term.
Promising that we will find a virtual utopia that will foster equality and freedom of expression from the outset is something that leaves a lot of legal and ethical loopholes. We analyze its implications, the privacy issues facing the metaverse, and how they should be addressed.
New technologies always require a study of their legal and social issues, and the metaverse was to be no different, especially considering the scale to which it is being taken.
Gartner predicts that by 2026, 25% of people will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse. Hence, as the real and virtual worlds converge more closely, ethical issues such as the AI bias we sometimes encounter, industry inequality, and lack of a common regulatory framework, among others, will need to be addressed.
Meta, for example, has committed to invest $50 million for research into practical and ethical issues surrounding the metaverse, but this would only be the beginning of a long road to a safe virtual space for all.
Metaverse Privacy Concerns
The metaverse promises to bring a new paradigm that combines social and technological experiences with unparalleled levels of interoperability and immersive experiences. However, it could have privacy risks.
On the one hand, XR (extended reality) is one of the pillars of the metaverse, thanks to its infinite capabilities to transform connections between the real and virtual worlds. However, it also helps to provide new tools and approaches for collecting data, a double-edged sword that raises questions such as: where do companies store data, and what are their encryption methods? What happens if hackers compromise an XR device? How will this data be used and safeguarded?
On the other hand, we can encounter other attacks such as credential theft, identity theft, or data hijacking. Identifying theft in the metaverse will be one of the great challenges of the metaverse, as anyone with access to network credentials could assume your identity within the virtual world. Compromising credentials can also affect users’ financial and personal information stored in their user profiles in the metaverse, which is a significant headache.
In fact, the data obtained by XR technology is also of great concern, such as biometric data in fingerprints, retina scans, voiceprints, facial geometry, etc.
To answer these questions, everything points to blockchain technology and the crypto space as the salvation of the growth of a more secure and scalable metaverse.
But we go one step further. So far, we have talked about the problems associated with the enabling technologies of this universe; however, we can also get to the polarization and radicalization related to the concept of a shared universe. The metaverse is presented as a decentralized space that unites applications, assets, services, and users in one place. Seen in this light, it looks very idyllic. However, the union of totally different and sometimes opposing groups of users can generate serious problems such as harassment and troll. In other words, the human factor is responsible for all the technological advances being tarnished.
Metaverse Legal Issues
In the last decade, we have witnessed the emergence of blockchain technology and digital assets. They all aim to decentralize communities, democratize access and allow people to invest in the future differently. Decentralization, in fact, is one of the pillars of the metaverse, under the promise of breaking down borders and enabling accessibility from anywhere.
Therefore, the metaverse should not be governed by any person or company; but, if the technology giants are making the most significant advances in this matter, it is pretty evident that old problems such as data theft, manipulations, or favoring the most powerful could return. The platform needs to emerge from the idea of total democratization, by and for all, to be transparent and fair.
But how do we control the ‘health’ of the metaverse? Technology itself is neutral, and we humans can corrupt it. This is where individual conscience is key, but there needs to be legal regulations and mechanisms that impose requirements to build a diverse and socially conscious universe.
At first glance, trying to control a space that is presented as a standard bearer of freedom for each user may seem a bit paradoxical, but it would be too utopian to believe otherwise. There is still a long way to go in terms of regularization, but some examples of digital world crimes have already been punished in the real world. For instance, in 2012, the Dutch Supreme Court ruled in a case involving a digital amulet and sword from the game Runescape. The two players who robbed the other at knifepoint were sentenced to community service on the grounds that, although the items had no material value, they had value in time and effort to obtain them.
For all the freedoms promised by the metaverse, we need options like those found on the internet today (privacy, blocking, etc.), coupled with new ideas and requirements as society evolves. Trying digital crimes in real-life courts does not seem scalable, but if the metaverse becomes as important as we anticipate, we could see more and more real-world legal frameworks applied to virtual spaces.
Ethics in Metaverse
If we go to the more ‘human’ and ethical side of the metaverse, one of the first problems we encounter is the reduced perception of physical space and disconnection with the real world. It would not be the first time we see cases where spending too many hours in front of the computer has become a disease. With the immersive and highly engaging experiences the metaverse offers, the chances are growing that some users will lose connection with the real world. This is why you need to be very aware of your environment to avoid any physical security issues in the metaverse.
If we analyze the social nature of the metaverse, another primary concern is the possibility of harassment actions such as those mentioned above. It is unnecessary to go to a virtual universe to find multiple cases of cyberbullying, especially since the boom in social networks.
Meta, for example, went public with its decision to introduce a “personal boundary” feature after psychotherapist Nina Jane Patel experienced a virtual attack on her avatar, akin to a group sexual assault while logging into Horizon Venues (the company’s event and show viewing app). The new feature allows users to activate a function for others to keep their distance, like a force field. However, there is a big challenge ahead in moving from a social networking platform to a metaverse platform, where there is a shift from content moderation to behavioral moderation.
To this end, one of the great hopes lies in future advances in AI. It is not yet smart enough to intercept audio transmissions in real-time and determine on the spot whether offensive behavior is taking place, but work is underway to make it so in a few years.
So, we reach a point where it is clear that the enabling technologies of this great universe will play a fundamental role in improving our lives, but that it can only be egalitarian and safe for all when users demonstrate respect, civility, and empathy for the people who share the metaverse.
If you want to know more about cybersecurity in the metaverse, don’t miss this episode of our Tech Holders podcast, where we have as our guest Chema Alonso, Chief Digital Officer of Telefónica. We talk about the security issues foreseen in the metaverse’s future and what is Telefónica’s vision of these virtual worlds based on Web 3.0. Questions will be answered, such as: who manages distributed identities to make them valid? How to manage identity securely? Should anonymity be maintained? Do users really own their identities?