On October 2021, the largest social media company Facebook rechristened itself as “meta”. This renaming is done to showcase that Facebook and its owners were highly hopeful and moving ahead in the next cutting age technology which is called metaverse. Facebook is surely not the only one, other tech giants like Microsoft, Epic games, Roblox and even Apple are trying hard to make this concept a reality. Within a relatively shorter span of time metaverse has become the talk of the wall street with investors pouring millions into companies that are showing enthusiasm about this growing technology.
Radical digital innovations like internet, blockchain, cryptocurrency and even NFT’s always have two contradictory sides. On one hand, they start tech boom in market, on the other hand they also become a tool for cybercrimes like frauds, hate speech, identity theft and data privacy breaches creating the need of regulation. Same is true with meta.
This article will try to examine the inherent shortcomings in the current legal system to deal with this next “big thing” metaverse. Need of change in existing laws and policies by the government will be highlighted.
In the simplest terms, metaverse is collective virtual simulation. Although this word only become commonplace in the year 2021, it is around since decades. Its origin can be traced back to Neil Stephenson’s 1992 novel “snow crash” and more recent movie of Stephen Spielberg called ready Player one.
Metaverse can be described under two broad terms virtual reality which consists virtual worlds which will remain even player was not playing and augmented reality compounding the aspects of virtual and real physical worlds. Players can create their own avatar and interact with each other freely just like in real world. All of this will be accessible by wearing a VR set. There is complete virtual economy inside metaverse for buying and selling of goods and property. Real estates under metaverse were already sold in millions.
For higher understanding we should consider an example, under metaverse we may, through our virtual avatars, meet our friends present at distanced places. We can go to virtual cafes, concerts attend sports and musical events, by and sell property and other goods that we may need in our virtual world.
Idea of metaverse sounds fascinating but the reality is that it can exacerbate already existing dangers in the cyber world.
Firstly, the concept of metaverse can increase the already existing intellectual property dispute as it is nowhere clear that whether existing protections relating to use of intellectual property products may apply to metaverse or not. Even when they did it will be unsurmountable task to enforce this regulation in metaverse.
Second and more importantly, the metaverse will add up to the already existing debate going around data protection and privacy. The existing internet already collected huge amount of consumer data for the benefits of multinational corporations and government worldwide. The amount of data that will be created through the metaverse would be at a scale which unwitnessed by any other technology. For an ordinary user of this meta universe protection of this data will become absolutely daunting. Other unanswered questions relating to Data privacy are whether this data will be stored by multinational Corporations or a separate data fiduciary? Whether this data would be held in the local country or exported to some other country? Who will be held responsible in the cases of data and privacy breaches? And more importantly will companies have any restriction about the type of data they can collect These types of questions were not answered anywhere in the worlds and government needs to seriously deliberate upon them.
Metaverse will also create its own set of challenges that were not seen in any other digital innovation so far. Suppose in a metauniverse you are going to café with some friends. While walking across the roads you encounter some peoples with boxes of information above them containing their descriptions. Thirds parties can inject some special information regarding peoples in these information boxes even in a way that may not be accessible to the person himself.They can label people as “Racist”, “Hispanic”, “immigrant” or stipulate their political affiliation. In this way metaverse will widen the already existing socio-political divides.
From the intial age of technology beginning from radio and TV, advertisers have targeted us by demographic, skillfully influencing our views. With the advent of social media, segmenting the public has gotten far more precise, enabling hyper-targeted messaging. In the metaverse, this targeting will get far more personal, the content much harder to resist. After all, in today’s world we usually know when we’re being advertised to and can muster a healthy dose of skepticism. In the metaverse, we won’t be hit with overt pop-up ads or promo-videos, but simulated people, products, and activities that seem just as real as everything else around us.Companies will try to exploit the metaverse in the best way possible.They can send their own A.I controlled boat or Salers to influence the consumers on the metaverse while looking exactly like them. The consumers’ inability to distinguish between real individuals can lead to widespread “consent manipulation.”.
In democracies , this meta data can be used to sway voters’ mind towards or against a particular party, ideology or leader through regularly showing them such content that will make for the cause. Whatever we will do in metaverse leave its footprint for the host platform . Through the specifically targetted algorithms, they can use those footprints and analyse our psyche- that what content interests us, whether we want to see more of, say, Trump or Biden. In the US it was already alleged that Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential Elections is a fruit of the exploitation of the data of millions of Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica. Going by the simple logic that whatever we do in metaverse, leaves its trace- hypothetically if some big company buys that metadata from that particular online platform, say Facebook, and if that big company has been employed by the ruling party then using that metadata the user can be targetted across all the platforms he is active to sway him- a very simple thing that could be done is to shoot various posts and videos critical of the opposition party. If that company can have created a psychological analysis of the user from its metadata then an even more advanced level of targeting could be done.
Additionally, the crimes relating to hate speech and violence-ill treatment of women and minorities would also bound to increase. The metaverse will come under the exception or intermediary protection granted to intermediates under sec.230 of communication decency act. This will make it possible for politician and other vested groups to just create their virtual avatars and utter their insidious and inciting speech’s via metaverse. Women can become the prime target of sexual assault. Multiple women’s have already reported incidences of groping or sexual assault in metaverse leading to detestable experience.Later, another woman has reported that she was bieng gang rapedin the metaverse.These types of incidences can be repeated to other cultural and sexual minorities too.To end this the moot question will arise whether the criminal law should be enforced in metaverse or not.To look at the definiton of section 354 which of Indian penal code which defines the offense of outraging the modesty of woman,there is huge uncertainity whether virtual avatar of a woman would be considered same entity or not.Although some expert say that as it does not impact the persona phyically distinction should be made between the virtual and real world life of an indvidual while those on the opposite side ,say that the experience of person of in metaverse is same as that of rela world thus they should be treated like one under criminal law too.
Recentely, some metaverse companies have stipulated the condition that transction within the metaverse will be conducted in cryptocurrency leading to possibiltiy of fraud as cryptocurrency is still not a legal tender in many countries like India.In case of fraud bieng perputed within this virtual world, the culprits can easily go away and it will be extremely cumbersome for investigation agencies to trace them.
Very recently Mark Jukerburg, the owner of Meta, has remarked that India is going to be one of the biggest market for metaverse.The growing popularity of metaverse in India can be uncerstood by the fact that in Indian primier league, its biggest and most pupular sports tournament , team are announcing virtual dugout in the metaverse. In order to deal with metaverse India has to amend mutiple laws relating to user profiling,data localisation and and data transfer.As remarkerd earlier,most of the metaverse company like Oculus collects regarding the physiccal movement of the user while using the VR device in the metaverse.As it amounts to biometric information it will come under the category of sensitive personal data under the impendingPDP bill which will requires its storage within the territory of the country.This will require installation of large number of data center in the country in organised fashion.A new law laying down the functioning of the data center and checking its impact on the surrounding environment will become a necessity in a brief period of time.
Another important thing with respect to Indian and metaverse is its growing contribution in the infeebled education system of the country.Central board of secondary education and meta recentely announced a tie up in which there will be high quality education will be provided to 10 million student from margianlised sections in the augmented reality.The current IT act does not have any provision to deal with the personal data of student. Although, it is being provided in the PDP bill, it still does not take into account the changed dimensions of the augmented reality world.
Firstly, government needs to regulate the level of monitoring and surveillance of the citizens under metaverse. As companies can store the individual data relating to theinteractions of the users of metaverse, inclinations, friends circle even the sense of touch and taste. It is of utmost necessity that a restriction was imposed on the extent of data collection and the time limit they can be stored. Otherwise, companies can use this highly sophisticated data, even heart rate or blood pressure, for unimaginable level of manipulation and ad targeting.
The level of control of by these third parties should also be bought under scrutiny. There will not be any visible advertisement but subtle crafty ways of influencing our behavior a third-party agent put up any subtle advertising gadget in the your augmented environment than it is needed to be intimated that this is not a sponatoues display but a targeted advertisement.
To regulate the hate speeches changes were needed at multiple levels. United States either have to amend the Communication decency act and its safe harbor protection or it have to exclude the metaverse from the ambit of this act. In India, the IPC section 153A and section 295Agovern hate speech after the quashing of section 66 of IT act. It is still unclear whether these IPC laws will apply to online or simulation worlds. Metaverse can provide the push for a specific legislation for online hate speeches in India. This will ensure that metaverse will not become a platform for untrammeled hate speeches. India also needs to streamline its Personal Data Protection Bill which is in loop since many years.PDP Bill will ensure personal sensitive data like biometrics of the user will not be exported outside the country and only those types of data were collected which were consented by the user. Mechanism is also needed to be developed to protect the consumers from online frauds and sexual assaults within the metaverse.
There are other radical solutions to the issues created by metaverse, one of them can be elimainting the ad based subscription model so that companies will have no incentive to keep the track of personal data of the user. This idea will require the user to individually purchase the subscription of metaverse like netflix or amazon prime account.It is extremely unlikely that large number of people especially in developing country like India will prefer a safe without ad metaverse instead of the ad-based free virtual realtiy. Another promising approach can be to switch the nature of metaverse from being controlled by corporates to the consumer themselves. One example of this type of system is the metaverse known as Decentriland with about 3 million users world wide.
It must be acknowledged that current moment is too early to comment on the implications of metaverse and its full understanding can only be realised after 10-15 years. There are high chances that this decade may witness another tech revolution mainly driven by metaverse. It can substantially enrich our experience of the virtual worlds by providing real worlds like environment. However, Government must prepare their laws to deal with its potential dangers and ensure that technology of metaverse is within the realm of data protection. This is necessary especially keeping in mind in other technology, by the government responded and reacted the problems got entrenched in the system.
Government should ensure that behind the attractive augmented reality envisaged by metaverse, the powerful technological and commercial giants were controlling our actions and the host platforms were not selling this tremendous amount of data to the highest bidder.
AUTHORED BY: JEETENDRA VISHWAKARMA