This article discusses the ethical implications of the metaverse. For more information on what the metaverse is, read our recent article.

In a day and age where huge corporations race to announce their own future constructs of a metaverse, we look at the ethical implications these new, parallel universes will have on society and how to ensure that such “worlds” are kept safe.

Biometric data and privacy

Virtual and augmented reality devices are set to provide users with access to the metaverse but the concession is that these devices, alongside brain-computer interfaces (BCI) will track brain wave patterns and deduct user thought processes. This technology will offer companies exciting new ways of engaging with consumers and predicting their behaviours or engagement but it also means that even more of our intrinsically private and personal data can be gathered, stored and kept on the blockchain for ever. Many consumers today simply accept privacy policies without having read them in full and it is worrisome that this will be the same in the metaverse. Especially given the current rate at which data leaks, hacks or misuse of data occur today. Cybersecurity and data protection will be an essential part of the metaverse.

Toxicity

The internet and social media have already shown us that when behind the protection of a computer or phone screen, people vocalise opinions that they would never express in real life. Such platforms have become a breeding ground for toxicity, bullies and hate speech. Yet the law and enforcement appear to lag behind technological developments. For instance, whilst what is widely considered to be the first social media site was invented in 1997 (the short-lived Six Degrees), the first time an individual was imprisoned for bullying on a social networking site was in 2009. Nearly 20 years later! It is only logical that the same ill-mannered behaviour will be expressed in the metaverse where people will be able to hide behind their avatar or “digital twin”. To combat this, law and regulation need to be in place as soon as is possible, and in the meantime, an ethical framework agreed.

Identity

Where LinkedIn enables users to present their professional self, Facebook allows users to keep in contact with friends and family, Twitter opens up the conversation and Instagram allows people to display their social selves, the question is what the metaverse will allow users to share. The use of NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens which rely on blockchain to embed unique codes into digital assets) will enable users to display their one-of-a-kind, authentic avatar, but how will users actually appear? Should there be a requirement for users to appear the same as they do in reality, i.e. their “digital twin”, or will there be freedom in how users identify themselves in the metaverse? Will users be required to appear the same across all metaverses? Where in the real world you roll a dice and have to accept what you are born into (be that appearance, social background, race, wealth and so on) if users can be anything they want in the metaverse they may be able to seek their true identities and discover who they really are without the pushes and pulls of society. Instead of identity being something people are born with, it may be something users can choose.

Protecting the vulnerable

Should users be required to provide their age and detail any disorders they have prior to accessing the metaverse? If users can be anything they want to be in the metaverse, this makes it hard to protect the vulnerable. Children are already very adept to playing virtual reality games that offer an immersive experience, but where the metaverse offers universes or “walled gardens” that display violent or adult content, there need to be ways of preventing access to children. Consuming or even virtually partaking in violent virtual reality games has already been shown to desensitise people to violence which poses the risk of “acceptable” metaverse actions being replicated in real life. These hyper-reality experiences could also trigger a sensory overload and induce fits or seizures in users who have a disorder like epilepsy.

How to ensure ethical practice is maintained in the metaverse

Whereas law and enforcement lags behind technological developments, commentators propose that ethical practice could and should be agreed and implemented universally throughout the metaverse. Two approaches many commentators agree on are:

A consumer centric approach

  • Before we “join” the metaverse, commentators call for ethical concepts to be settled which focus on the consumer. How this affects the life of the consumer legally, personally, socially and emotionally must be thoroughly examined.
  • Who settles these concepts is highly important. Commentators are suggesting that designers, consumers, technologists and mental health experts could be better placed to head the ethical council and develop the virtues and best practice, not companies and corporations with ulterior motives at play.

“Walled gardens”

  • No one company or country should control the metaverse. Commentators argue that it should work like the internet and offer gateways into walled gardens or other universes.
  • Users should be able to move around freely in the interoperable metaverse.
  • Commentators envisage that once prices to run metaverses fall people will be able to run their own pocket universes with the option to move about more freely. Bigger universes will have to be kind to users and not impose too much control, otherwise they will become another universe’s player.