Although the metaverse promises great commercial opportunities, it raises a number of questions that regulators and legislators are having a hard time answering as this future evolution of the Internet is still at a very early stage.
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It’s hard to imagine what the metaverse will really look like, but regulators are starting to think about it seriously.
The European Commission wants to be reassuring. “The metaverse is not something new,” Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said at the Digital Assembly organised by the French Presidency that was held this week in Toulouse.
“We have worked hard to ensure that the European regulatory framework is adequate,” he added, referring to the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA), adding that Brussels does not intend to “wait for the damage to be done before intervening.”
But there is a fly in the ointment: while many potential uses have already been identified, the metaverse is still more of a concept, making it almost impossible to identify with certainty the challenges and risks that this new parallel world – or worlds – will pose.
“No matter how it is defined, social and economic problems will arise,” Haksoo Ko, a law professor at Seoul University, said.
And experts are even struggling to come up with an exhaustive list. “What’s great about the idea of the metaverse is that we have totally new mediation spaces that will develop with sensory interaction features,” Sébastien Soriano, director-general of the French National Institute for Geographic and Forestry Information (IGN) said.
“It plunges us into the unknown,” he added. But that doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless.
First of all, “we need to be able to assess the threats in different contexts, especially on social networks,” Camille François, professor at Columbia University, said while praising the fact that this type of dialogue is happening before the metaverse becomes a reality.
“It’s important to think about how to design responsible technologies” from the beginning, she added.
The list of potential risks of the metaverse includes cyberbullying and hate speech, which could also take on a whole new dimension in this new, entirely virtual world.
For 97% of French respondents to an Ipsos survey published last December, online harassment is a serious problem – and 59% of those respondents reported having been victims of it.
Although, according to the same study, the majority of respondents recognise that dating apps, for example, are implementing more measures to prevent harassment, one French person out of two still thinks that we don’t talk about it enough and nearly eight out of ten think that the policies to combat it are insufficient.
For the time being, all indications point to the fact that these abuses will increase in the metaverse, and the immersive nature of these attacks will likely amplify their impact.
And Big Tech is well aware of this.
In an internal memo from March 2021 obtained by the Financial Times, Meta’s Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bosworth warned that the metaverse could become a “toxic environment,”, especially for women and minorities and that it could be an “existential threat” to the company’s plans if this “threat” were to keep mainstream users out of this new space.
Meta is not the only company to worry about this. In a recent blog post, Charlie Bell, Microsoft’s executive vice president, pointed out that “the problems of yesterday’s and today’s Internet – identity theft, credential theft attempts, social engineering, state spying, unavoidable vulnerabilities – will show up in the metaverse as well.”
Privacy and data protection concerns should also be an integral part of the debate.
Additionally, policy-makers won’t be able to ignore competition rules.
“We know that incumbent companies are putting all their weight in this immersive technology world,” Thierry Breton said, stressing that “fair competition” will have to be guaranteed.
Everyone wants their piece of the metaverse. French President Emmanuel Macron was recently urged to “fight to build a European metaverse”.
“What we see with digital technology is that critical size is not reached with the size of the players, but through network effects,” IGN’s Soriano explained, calling on European authorities to “switch to a logic of commonality” in order to be able to rely on communities and not experience “another episode of winner takes it all.”
Finally, Professor Ko also pointed out what will happen “outside the metaverse”.
Taking the example of educational uses of the metaverse, he stressed the need not to exclude anyone from this technology if it is going to become a must-have. “There are groups of students who will not have the means, who simply will not be able to be connected,” he warned.
[Edited by Luca Bertuzzi and Benjamin Fox]