Governance in the metaverse

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Asaf Lubin, Datasphere Initiative Fellow, Datasphere Initiative

On Microsoft’s mixed reality platform AltspaceVR legless avatars roam free, “teleporting” from one event to another: an open-mic night at a comedy club, an LGBTQ+ meetup around a campfire, and a church sermon overlooking a waterfall. Each of these virtual spaces is a “world” and users are encouraged to generate more of them through a “world editor.” As demigods in this new metaverse, each participant voluntarily takes part in a social experiment that looks to transform our terra firma into a terra digitalis, a “potentially infinite digital environment made of data.”¹ The metaverse promises even more datafication, as aspects of our lives that once resisted the information revolution now succumb to it. In this process, the Datasphere — “the complex system encompassing all types of data and its dynamics with human groups and norms”²— continues to expand and to evolve.

In this blog post, produced as part of my fellowship at the Datasphere Initiative, I attempt to explore how the evolution of the metaverse is set to transform the Datasphere and thereby the regulation of our interconnected and interdependent digital lives.

Augmented and extended reality platforms represent “the next phase of the internet”.³ It is on these platforms where we will soon work, shop, and socialize. Yet the public’s understanding of VR, AR, and XR is still rooted to an “escapist” model, one that sees these worlds as a mere game “where our actions don’t matter”. But what if that changed? What if your bank or your doctor had gone fully virtual, so that appointments could only be made inside the metaverse? What if university professors mandated augmented office hours, where students could be transported literally into their midterms for review? Or where personal trainers only met their clients inside virtual gyms and parks? If this future ever materializes, putting your headset on and embodying your inner avatar will become second nature.

It is not inconceivable to imagine a world where it will become near-impossible to participate in most economic, civil, social, and cultural activity without maintaining an AR account, just in the same way that smartphones are now a necessity of modern living. The global pandemic only highlighted the potential value in designing remote and alternative environments, thereby creating new growth opportunities for the digital experience platform market which is now estimated to reach almost $23 billion globally by 2028.

The metaverse is not only where we will work and play though. If human nature has taught us anything, it is that the metaverse will also become the place where we will steal, humiliate, and injure. In December, for example, a user in “Horizon Worlds,” Facebook’s VR app, “complained of being groped online and called for a protective bubble around their avatar”. Digital torts and crimes will be most dangerous in fully merged environments where the physical and virtual realities will be indistinguishable.

Who should police against these crimes?. Responding to the sexual assault allegation on “Horizon Worlds,” Facebook rolled out a new coded modification recently, mandating a 4-foot distance between all avatars. Moving forward, the citizens of “Horizon Worlds” will need to extend their arms “to be able to high-five or fist bump other people’s Avatars”.As Vivek Sharma, Vice President of Horizon, explained on the Oculus Blog: the company will continue to add “new controls and UI changes” with the aim of “setting new norms for social VR” (Id).

By digitizing more and more aspects of our physical lives, we are not only expanding the Datasphere; we are also redefining what it means to be a sovereign. The act of creating a virtual world is in essence an act of defiance, as the “world editor” challenges the State’s monopoly over the powers to prescribe, adjudicate, and enforce. With a single software update, a corporate giant can erect and erase civil rights, legal duties, and property interests. And those corporate giants can do it more effectively than the State can. Just compare “Horizon Worlds” new social distancing feature with how hard it was for governments to legislate and enforce parallel social distancing rules during the pandemic.

But if we leave the regulation of the metaverse in the hands of its corporate owners, we risk the potential amplification of the same kind of challenges we have been confronted with around social media. As Stavik Pandey writes: “in a metaverse, leaving the policing of the place to the companies that run it (and more importantly, profit from it), is a recipe for disaster. Just look at how bad social media has been at regulating itself”.

It is in this context that we might benefit from exploring further the symbiosis between data, human groups, and norms within the Datasphere. That relationship could produce a completely new terminology and lens for thinking about data governance, one that resists the temptation to leave regulation solely in the hands of either State or corporate elites. As João Marinotti and I have argued elsewhere, “becoming early adopters of a new reconceptualized language around “us” and “them,” the “self” and the “other” can perhaps future proof our society from the cyborg perils that await”.

At the intersection between the metaverse and the Datasphere there might be an opportunity to generate innovative and original vocabulary for thinking about ownership, control, rights, and dutiesSuch terminology will embrace the fact that the metaverse, and thereby the Datasphere, is continuously producing new distributions of sovereign spaces and of power. In other words, the expansion of data (both in volume and in-kind), and society’s continued interaction with it, could mark the first major resistance to the Westphalian legal order that has controlled much of human experience for the past 400 years.

¹Bergé J-S. and S. Grumbach (2017),“The Datasphere as a New Paradigm for Relationship between Territories in Law”, Brazilian Journal of Public Policy, 7(3), III-XVII,  http://ediec.univ-lyon3.fr/fileadmin/medias/CV_CREDIP/CV_EDIEC_BERGE_Jean-Sylvestre.pdf

²De La Chapelle, B. and L. Porciuncula (2022),“Hello Datasphere — Towards a Systems Approach to Data Governance”, Datasphere Initiative Medium, https://medium.com/@thedatasphere/hello-datasphere-towards-a-systems-approach-to-data-governance-d602f96c9e1d 

³Stern, J (2021),“I Spent 24 Hours in the metaverse. I Made Friends, Did Work and Panicked About the Future”, The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/metaverse-experience-facebook-microsoft-11636671113 

⁴Chalmers, D (2022),“What Should Be Considered a Crime in the metaverse?”, Wired, https://www.wired.com/story/crime-metaverse-virtual-reality/ 

⁵Research and Markets (2021),“Global Digital Experience Platform Market (2021 to 2028) — New Business Models to Increase and Retain the Customer Base are Driving Growth”Globe News Wire, https://www.yahoo.com/now/global-digital-experience-platform-market-084800115.html 

⁶Milmo, D (2022),“Meta to bring in mandatory distances between virtual reality avatars”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/feb/04/meta-to-bring-in-mandatory-distances-between-virtual-reality-avatars 

⁷Sharma, V (2022),“Introducing a Personal Boundary for Horizon Worlds and Venues”, Oculus Blog, https://www.oculus.com/blog/introducing-a-personal-boundary-for-horizon-worlds-and-venues/ 

⁸Pandey, S (2022),“Laws and Crimes In the metaverse”, Digit News, https://www.digit.in/features/metaverse/laws-and-crimes-in-the-metaverse-62738.html 

⁹Marinotti, J. and A. Lubin (2021),“I Law, Artificial Intelligence, And Science Fiction: Reflections on Implications of “Upload” on Copyright, Contract, and Human Rights Law”, Jurist, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/05/marinotti-lubin-upload-legal-implication/