Law in the Internet Society

Life or Death in the Metaverse

-- By JamieLee - 25 Dec 2021

As Facebook’s recent re-branding as Meta has demonstrated, it seems that the tech industry’s answer to the public’s loss of trust in tech platforms is to introduce newly imagined iterations of these platforms. The problem, of course, is that these new systems only become more immersive – and thus, invasive – with every new iteration. The industry believes that re-working and re-packaging will cause users to forget about their past transgressions and wash away their associations of their platforms with the growing sense of unease about how much data we give them access to. Unfortunately for Meta, it’s going to take a lot more than a name change. Whether you’ve recently been awakened to the seriousness of these issues only recently, or you’ve been preaching this message for decades, privacy concerns are a topic we are no longer able to claim ignorance of.

Flawed Beginnings: Why Metaverses are Designed to Fail Us

Meta’s promise is that the building of the metaverse is being conducted with great care of its users’ concerns – privacy or otherwise. They’ve tried to settle public concern by making concessions in the form of pledges to “involve the human rights and civil rights communities from the start to ensure technologies are ‘built in a way that’s inclusive and empowering.’” What they fail to acknowledge is that the public concern plaguing Meta extend far beyond worries of hateful speech online or the propagation of non-inclusive sentiments.

Central to privacy concerns is the presumption that the normalized use of VR to conduct everyday activities such as work, school, and social gatherings “could serve as a supercharged Alexa-style virtual assistant in terms of potential for violations.” The implementation of headsets, AR glasses, and other wearable devices only increases the possibility of non-authorized surveillance that devices like Alexa and Google Home have already had trouble with. As a place of business, the metaverse will require vast amounts of personal information to be shared with and stored therein. Credit card information, hospital records, and personal communications combined with tracking of our personal spending, online searches, and media-consumption habits ensures that a virtual world owned, operated and regulated by a for-profit company has access to all of our personal information in one centralized “universe.”

With this information, Meta "can strategically place you in a certain context and provide you with content that only selected people can see to bend your reality…” In a frightening amplification of the way social media platforms and online advertisements create filters between us and the information we receive, the metaverse has the ability to reshape reality for its users; the design of this reality will undoubtedly be whatever creates the most profit. Since Meta makes most of its money from advertising, it is no mystery what dictates the world that will be created before us.

The Difficult Escape

One might argue that the clear solution would simply be to leave the metaverse – or never enter to begin with. But if its development and integration will be anything like the integration of tech within the past decade, it will become something to depend on for many people. With the resources to learn and implement privacy-protecting methods of engaging with the world, giving away our data can seem optional. But in reality, this is rare. For most, using the internet and allowing companies like Google and Apple to take our data, hardly feels like an option at all. Perhaps it’s the lack of effort or determination that drives this perspective, but it is a widely held view that a life of zero involvement with these kinds of platforms and devices has the potential to disadvantage you socially, economically, and intellectually. This is especially true in the post-pandemic world, where schools, institutions, and workplaces emphatically require the use of certain programs without commitment to protecting individual privacy.

Solutions are not the Solution

The question then, becomes about what we can do to prevent a world in which we either willingly participate in the metaverse, or are disadvantaged by refusing to do so. First and foremost, schools and workplaces – entities that the average person depends on for their livelihood – need to prioritize individuals and seriously consider the assault on our privacy that joining metaverses may have. Opting into the metaverse because of societal pressure is one thing, but being led to do so out of fear that one could lose their job or education is a completely different kind of threat that companies and educational institutions are taken much too lightly.

Second, while legislation and regulatory efforts may be helpful, the mere regulation of the metaverse will not dispose of these issues. Frances Haugen, the whistleblower that exposed Meta of prioritizing profit over users, recommended that lawmakers use legislation such as the Digital Services Act to set an example for how will and won’t be tolerated in the digital world. But moderating illegal content on these platforms assumes that the platforms themselves are acceptable, if used “correctly.” The truth is that the concern does not lie in bad actors or the misuse of these platforms; it is their very use that will empower their providers to control the infrastructure of our society.

What's Different This Time?

It's important to consider though, that despite all that Zuckerberg claims, the metaverses that Meta is creating don't offer anything revolutionary. Virtual reality platforms go back almost two decades. For various reasons, none have stuck, and Ethan Zuckerman suggests that sub-par graphics ("animating complex sets of polygons is pretty hard when they can all move in any given direction at any given time") and the mundanity of it all ("You can watch David Attenborough nature documentaries, like you do on Netflix. You can videoconference with your workmates … you know, like you do every single day") are a few of the principal reasons why Meta will fail to become as life-altering -- or widely used for that matter -- as the company projects it will be. The only thing that might serve to make Meta's metaverses more successful is that it comes at a time when we are completely obsessed with convenience. Take Amazon Go, for instance. At its start, there was a compelling argument for why a grocery store in which you can walk out with your items without having interacted with a single human or bar-code scanning machine (legally) felt unnecessary and frankly just dystopian. But with each new unnecessary tech 'innovation' that catches some level of clout, the unnecessary becomes a little more necessary as we become accustomed to new levels of convenience. If this is something Meta can somehow provide, perhaps there's a path for it to become a widely used platform. But considering the basic technological challenges it faces with creating a seamless, realistic world, it's difficult to see how users will find navigating these metaverses more convenient than living out their physical realities. At a minimum, Meta will need years to perfect its technology.

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r3 - 10 Jan 2022 - 00:31:58 - JamieLee
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