M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 195

Who Will Make the Rules for the Metaverse?

Tom Wheeler


Executive Summary

The future of online platforms is a pastiche of the digital platforms we know today – Facebook, TikTok, YouTube, etc. – enhanced by virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and a chilling expansion of the invasion of personal privacy. Called the metaverse (a term combining “meta” meaning “transcending” and “universe”), the new platforms create a video game-like pseudo- world – this time, however, it is no game, but personally identifiable avatars interacting with each other. The internet platforms we have experienced thus far have been an observational experience that principally harnessed text and video. The metaverse is an experience of participatory immersion in which real world people, problems, and patterns come to life.

The metaverse brings the promise of new tools for education, entertainment, medicine, and commerce. At the same time, it imports the problems associated with the current digital platforms while creating a host of new issues as well. We have yet to successfully deal with the problems created by the current digital platforms; the metaverse should be the impetus to rectify those abuses while getting in front of the challenges to come.

We are told the metaverse is years away, giving us time to figure out how to deal with its ill effects while encouraging its positive features. Failure to develop meaningful policies now - on an international basis - however, will mean we did not learn the lesson of the last multiple decades of internet exploitation by a handful of companies and how the companies write their own rules at the expense of the public interest.

The online challenges with which we wrestle today, such as privacy, competition, and misinformation, will be supercharged by the intrusive, immersive, individually identifiable, and manipulative nature of the metaverse. On top of this, the metaverse expands the problems inherent in unsupervised online communities such as harassment, manipulation, personal safety and the safety of children.

The problems created by the digital platforms of today were, for the most part, an unexpected surprise. We cannot claim such innocence about the metaverse. The experience with social media is a warning about what happens when public interest expectations are not part of digital innovation, when “build it and be damned” is the rule. Policy makers need to come to grips with – preferably get ahead of – the new technology with focus equal to those who are creating the new challenges.

An advertising campaign by Meta Platforms, Inc. (the former Facebook) promises, “The metaverse may be virtual, but its impact will be real.” That reality is barreling down on us now. Now is the time to deal with the public interest issues the metaverse raises.

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