This post was written by Kara Dunford, Communications Manager.
Facebook — now Meta — is betting big on the metaverse as the next era of the web. And they’re not the only ones preparing for a world where we connect and interact in online virtual environments, with Microsoft, Tinder, and Nike all making plays for the metaverse.
No doubt the metaverse offers exciting possibilities. From virtual concerts on Roblox to Minecraft’s Uncensored Library built by Reporters Without Borders to give access to censored journalism, we’re already seeing the beginnings of what the metaverse might offer.
But before we jump head-first into our immersive virtual world, let’s stop to consider what this future looks like, and what we want it to be. As we continue to grapple with the challenges of today’s web, those building the metaverse must learn from the pitfalls of the past and anticipate the challenges of the future.
If the metaverse really is to be the next generation of the web, we need serious commitment and action now to ensure it is built to prioritise the rights, safety, and wellbeing of everyone.
Here are four key areas to consider.
Privacy is central to our freedom, dignity and safety. The information we share online should work for us, not against us. And in the embodied internet of the metaverse, we’d be sharing a lot more of it. Virtual reality and augmented reality hardware, the tools of this new digital world, vastly expand the data tech companies can collect, including everything from your location to your heart rate and the movements of your eyes and fingers. Without a concerted focus on data protection, the metaverse will become another space where users’ data is exploited for private financial gain.
Much of the world still lacks fit-for-purpose data privacy laws, including many countries across Africa (and the US, where this technology is chiefly being built). In this context, a data-harvesting metaverse could be a new privacy nightmare. These companies will have access to our sensitive biometric data. Unlike our credit card number or the password to our email account, this is data about ourselves that we cannot change, which make potential leaks or monetisation particularly alarming.
The principles outlined in the Contract for the Web to protect and promote our data rights are a critical prerequisite to a metaverse where our privacy is respected. We need robust regulation and practices for data collection that safeguard our data and put us in control of our privacy. And we need companies to build interfaces that give us real transparency and control over the data they collect.
On today’s internet, too many people — particularly women, people of colour, those in the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalised groups — face horrific abuse online. This abuse has a huge impact on people’s mental and physical health, and threatens to drive people from online platforms. Given the immersive, persistent nature of the metaverse, there is good reason to believe that online abuse in these spaces will be an even greater danger. Indeed, research indicates that abuse in virtual reality is “far more traumatic than in other digital worlds” because virtual reality has the power to blur the line between what’s real and what’s not. For one researcher, three punches to her avatar’s face caused her to assume a crouching position in her office — her mind and body registering the punches as real. For weeks afterward, she experienced post-traumatic “intrusive thoughts”.
Spaces in the metaverse must be designed to keep people safe and curb the abuse and violence that proliferates on today’s social platforms. Given how companies fail to stop hate and abuse on their platforms today, doing so in complex virtual environments will be one of their biggest challenges in the years to come. But this must be a top priority. The metaverse could create exciting new ways for people to build connections and find community, but unless companies can effectively moderate abuse at scale, the metaverse will be one more digital space where hate is allowed to thrive.
It’s important that the metaverse is built as an open plain rather than a walled garden, with no one company at the helm. There will be no one single metaverse — but rather many metaverses. We need common standards and interoperability to bridge between these spaces, so that we don’t end up with separate digital confines but can instead travel seamlessly between virtual spaces with the same avatars and other digital assets. There is now a Metaverse Interoperability Community at W3C — the web standards body — and other interoperability projects laying the groundwork for this. The efforts of these groups and others will have a huge impact on the future shape of the metaverse. There is a long way to go to develop the technologies to make this work, but if successful, it could be a far more exciting digital future.
Beyond the excitement of a possible future, there is the reality that over one-third of the world is still without a basic internet connection, and even fewer have the meaningful connection required to make most of internet access. So, we must not forget the urgent priority to connect those still unable to get online.
In the coming years, the metaverse will be used by a privileged few — it will not be how most of the world connects. The high costs of hardware and the bandwidth required to use it means it’s out of reach for much of the world’s population. Over a billion people live in countries that are yet to meet the UN Broadband Commission’s ‘1 for 2’ affordability threshold for basic internet.
We must then remain primarily focused on fighting to make sure the web we have is accessible and empowering for everyone. That means an all-out push to connect the world — and recognising and guaranteeing internet access as a human right. Otherwise we’ll have generations of young people exploring the metaverse before millions others have made their first visit to a website.
There is still so much we don’t know about what’s to come. This is all just the tip of the iceberg.
But we do know we’re at a pivotal moment: what happens in the coming months and years will help determine whether the metaverse takes us into a bold, exciting digital future — or lands us in a digital dystopia like we’ve never seen before. If the metaverse is going to be the next step in the web’s evolution, we need thoughtful, intentional action to shape the web we want.
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