The metaverse, a space to regulate before it really exists?

If the metaverse, which will not be fully developed for years, is still an abstract notion, it is already causing concern. Explanations.

End of 2021, the company known as Facebook for several years has renamed itself Meta. Objective: to better reflect its metaverse project, i.e. virtual worlds where users could socialize, have fun and work. This term coined in 1992 has since experienced a resurgence in popularity, with many brands and companies having embarked on the adventure. And, according to the Gartner Institute, 25% of the population should spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse by 2026. However, it is clear that today, no one really knows what we are talking about . The vagueness around this concept does not, however, prevent some people from calling for the regulation of the metaverse.

A vague concept

If this term is often mentioned in the singular, we should rather speak of “metavers”, because there are several of them, as indicated the authors of a recent report (Exploratory mission on metaverses) handed over to the government, Adrien Basdevant, lawyer at the Paris Bar, Camille François, researcher at Columbia University, and Rémi Ronfard, researcher at Inria. Microsoft, Epic Games, Roblox, The Sandbox… many companies have their own vision of this concept and seek to develop it. For Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, this is, for example, the future of the Internet. Influencers believe that it will replace social networks.

“The metaverse is a multitude of services and spaces, more or less open”, explain the authors of the report. According to them, many companies take advantage of the “vagueness surrounding this concept to appear as actors of the metaverse, proposing their own definition of the concept, serving their interests. Thus, projects as different as virtual reality platforms, multiplayer video games, platforms for broadcasting concerts in augmented reality or online sales sites (marketplaces) based on blockchains, all use the term “metaverse”. “to define oneself”.

Faced with the vagueness of this concept, the authors of the report propose a definition, qualifying the metaverse as “online service giving access to real-time, shared and persistent 3D space simulations, in which we can live immersive experiences together”.

A still distant concept

If it is still difficult to define what the metaverse is today, it is not for nothing. Although several actors have embarked on the adventure and have communicated widely on the issue, it will still take years for the metaverse to be completed. We are thus at the very beginning of this concept. Meta himself, during his conference last year, never said that his project was for tomorrow. Interviewed by the media The Vergeits CEO has also reiterated that years will pass before it is fully built. “It’s not like this stuff is going to be fully developed in a year or even two or three years. It will take a long time to build the next computing platform”assured Mark Zuckerberg.

A metaverse is an online service providing access to real-time, shared and persistent 3D space simulations, in which immersive experiences can be enjoyed together.

For now, Meta has only given a taste of its vision through its virtual reality platforms, including Horizon Worlds. Like others, they are thus outlines of metaverses. Although these virtual worlds are still in development, some are already calling for their regulation.

Regulation, a necessity?

Over the past year, the issue of metaverse regulation has come up a number of times. The authors of the Exploratory mission on metaverses offer, for example, “start now the work of adapting, in particular the general regulation on data protection (GDPR), the legislation on digital services (DSA) and the legislation on digital markets (DMA) to metaversic issues”.

Why are we already talking about regulation when the metaverse will not be fully built for years? The answer is simple: the objective is precisely to regulate it before it really exists, in order to protect users from possible dangers. “Right now, the metaverse is where social media was 20 years ago. The industry is so caught up in utopian possibilities and no one is focused on regulating the hazards. Obviously, we can all see how difficult it is to undo the damage of social media now. We can’t repeat that mistake with the metaverse.”explained Louis Rosenberg, engineer and researcher, during a conference on the occasion of Metaverse Safety Week (MSW), an annual event hosted by the XR Safety Initiative (XRSI) to explore issues and help secure the metaverse.

This idea is also shared by Mark Zuckerberg. “Interoperability, open standards, privacy and security must be ensured in the metaverse from day one (…) It’s about designing for security, privacy and inclusion before the products even exist »he said during an exchange with Nick Clegg, president of international affairs of Meta, in October 2021.

Unfortunately, it is already a little late for that: if people are calling for these virtual universes to be regulated, it is because the problems are already there. This is for example the case of non-profit advocacy organization SumOfUswho witnessed various toxic behaviors (sexual harassment, comments of a homophobic nature…) in Horizon Worlds and other applications owned by Meta. More recently, Interpol, which works with the World Economic Forum and several players in the metaverse industry to regulate these virtual worlds, unveiled its own space to fight crime. Thus, although the concept of metaverses is still vague and does not yet exist, it seems urgent to define rules for these worlds which could, later, occupy a place as important as the Internet today.

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The metaverse, a space to regulate before it really exists?

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