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Indepth: Policing the Metaverse – why it is so complex?

Image credit: Pete Linforth from Pixabay
Image credit: Pete Linforth from Pixabay

With the growing foray of brands and businesses into the Metaverse, concerns regarding security and privacy have come to the fore. As pointed out by Madhusmita Panda, Chief Marketing Officer, KredX, there have already been concerns about user safety online and there is growing evidence that immersive tech and the Metaverse might exacerbate this problem. Added to these challenges to personal safety online, lies the risk to personal data security. Panda noted that the threats to users could include cyber-bullying, image-based abuse, etc.

Thus, it has become imperative to ask whether Metaverse needs policing and if so, who will police it. Or will Metaverse be an open and collaborative platform, just like the Internet?

Making a case for policing the Metaverse, Panda pointed out, “Immersive environments record high volumes of data, including biometric, location, and personal information. The risks posed by the Metaverse, primarily center on the gathering and protection of data. From a consumer perspective, I think there is a need for a highly robust system in place to police the Metaverse. Governments and corporations collectively need to create defined norms and regulatory frameworks to prevent the abuse of this technology.”

“We have already seen sexual harassment taking place on Meta’s VR social media platform and it won’t be the last time,” says Louise Shorthouse, Senior Analyst, Ampere Games. He stresses that companies need to take action to ensure the safety of participants in the space. However, it will be more difficult, given the increased levels of immersion and freedom of movement. “Essentially, it is very complex and not much is certain at the moment, but it will not be a mass market proposition for some time,” he adds.

Agreeing with Louise Shorthouse, Yellow.ai Co-founder & CPO Rashid Khan, too, stressed on the need for a strong policing mechanism in the Metaverse. He noted, “There have been several cases of abuse and harassment within the Metaverse, and it is becoming increasingly necessary to ensure that there are strong codes of behaviour set in place that are made clear to all users. Moreover, there has to be a mechanism that sanctions unacceptable and unlawful behaviour exhibited by users in the Metaverse.”

As it is a highly interactive virtual platform, Metaverse would need to have a certain level of policing, which could be embedded into the code itself by the developers in the form of policy of the said world, says Kaavya Prasad, Founder, Lumos Labs.

She cites examples such as data privacy norms, prohibition of offensive language and/or gestures, sharing personal details with discretion, and a mechanism for prevention of sexual assault, cases of which have been reported already.

“There would be a standard level of policies that can prevent cybercrimes happening within the world, which would need to be decided at the time of creating the world. The Lumos Metaverse would also have these set standards which will ensure a safe environment for its participants and discourage flagrant breaches of them. To replicate the real-world level of personal security or have a precise regulatory framework that is governing the real-world, we still have a long way to go and would need new techniques, equipment, and laws to navigate that aspect. Given the governance mechanism in Web3, we can be assured that users would have full freedom of their identity and the way the Metaverse functions, but in terms of personal safety, we would need to brainstorm ways to navigate these important issues without exposing user identity,” she says.

“Policing by definition is restrictive. It is enforcement of regulations,” notes Sriram PH, CEO-Co-Founder, DaveAI. He adds, “What we need is first a regulatory environment that is enabling. Of course, like in any other scenario we will have fringe elements trying to create security risks or tap this technology for malicious purposes. The regulatory framework should clearly define the same as much as possible so that policing can be done without being restrictive to the innovation, this space can bring. This is always the challenge for regulators when it comes to significantly large evolutionary shifts and that is why some large economies take their time before coming up with a policy. But sometimes this may to what is called policy paralysis as the pace at which adoption grows is exponential.”

Several notable challenges hinder any type of policing of the Metaverse, says Brett Sappington, Vice President, Interpret. He poses some pertinent questions, “Which laws apply? Who has the authority to police, particularly on a global scale? How do you handle decentralised aspects of the Metaverse, where the specific jurisdiction is difficult to discern? Who will provide the personnel (or budget) for policing to occur?”

In the end, says James Brightman, Senior Strategist, Interpret, policing will probably vary from country to country and from Metaverse platform to Metaverse platform.

The Metaverse poses risks of different kinds, such as breaches of data privacy, financial and cyber threats, privacy breaches, and threats to personal security, explains Rashid Khan. “The providers of Metaverse-led solutions have access to a great deal of data, ranging from personal, to financial, to biometric, and brainwave. The potential to control and manipulate this information is high and the corresponding risk is also high. This gives users a lot of power to shape people’s experiences in a profound manner. Being a ‘reflection of society’ in the virtual dimension, there are also chances of replication of the kinds of social inequalities and injustices creeping into the Metaverse. The need to ensure that it is regulated and monitored strictly is undisputable,” he adds.

Khan further says that the government has already formulated national strategies for the technological building blocks of the Metaverse – AI, blockchain, cyber security, and data, privacy, to name a few. However, he adds, as it stands today, there is nothing specifically formulated for the Metaverse itself in its entirety. 

“A taskforce has been built to explore how to enhance the capacity of the Metaverse in the AVGC sector. As such, there aren’t any global examples to take inspiration from with respect to putting in place a robust regulatory framework. The overall sentiment with respect to the Metaverse is still at the stage of contemplation, and gaining a better grasp of the subject matter. It must be noted here that it is not possible to place the responsibility of regulating the Metaverse on any one stakeholder alone. It is a complex system, and matters such as legislation in the event of harassment of an individual for instance, would be equally complicated. It will require close cooperation and collaboration between all stakeholders – service providers, government agencies, legislative bodies, etc. – to create checks and balances within the ecosystem. While this situation poses a challenge to the progression of the industry at large, it might be too early to say that it will be an impediment, as reflected in the fact that it is being adopted rapidly across the globe. The growth of this industry is undeniable, and the regulations to safeguard its users will necessarily follow suit,” he explains.

Amer Ahmad, Director of Technology at Blink Digital, feels that policing is required in the Metaverse. “Of course, where humans are involved, policing will be required. Typically platforms have their T&Cs that lay the base layer for policing. And the benefits of the truly decentralised Metaverses are that they are run by DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations) that work in an open and transparent manner as a community to set up protocols and systems. It also renders the question of who is policing the police void. A true Metaverse should be open to all.”

On the other hand, GOQii Founder-CEO Vishal Gondal feels that there is nothing new that Metaverse has to create. According to him, “Just like any social media network, when there will be a collection of a lot of people together. There will be a need for admins, supervisors etc… just as it is on FB today. Games such as the Fortnite, Minecraft and other  gaming platforms have been following community guidelines of how you can behave on their platforms for years now.”

Since it is an immersive experience, the Metaverse will need guidelines for sure, according to Prateek A Sethi, Communication Designer, Wearetrip. It will definitely, for a period of time, be like the golden age of the Internet, where we all learnt, shared, worked and grew together.

Sahil Chopra, Fonder-CEO, iCubesWire, believes that the Internet has always been accessible to all, which allows people to keep adding to it and bring about innovations. To grow and evolve into a platform trusted by all, Metaverse needs to be accessible by all and should be a collaborative platform. However, it must have its own regulatory framework, which protects the users, their data, and more.

Ethical challenges before brands

What will be the ethical challenges that brands might face in the Metaverse, as well as the potential areas of mistakes that they should avoid?

There are several ethical challenges plaguing the Web3 and the Metaverse, which are yet to be resolved completely, says Lumos Labs’ Kaavya Prasad.

“Starting with energy consumption, the proof-of-work consensus mechanism of blockchain, which is the foundation for all Web3 operations, has frequently come into question due to the large-scale energy it requires. The mechanism requires computing power to solve complicated questions which get more energy consuming as the chain increases. This is an unsustainable mechanism and a number of chains have now moved to a proof-of-stake consensus mechanism, which requires validators to authenticate the transaction and consumes extensively less energy. This PoS mechanism is now being preferred throughout the Web3 community and leading blockchains have already or are in the process of shifting to this mechanism, thus increasing longevity of the overall sector, including Metaverse,” she adds.

Another key social challenge, Prasad points out, is the divide between tech-savvy and non-tech-savvy, which would keep deepening as more futuristic technologies come into play.

“Given the popularity of the Metaverse, there is still a large chunk of the global population that has not associated with it, and this is not due to the lack of efforts, but rather the social divide which comes with income disparity. In India, the Internet rates are one of the cheapest globally and Internet penetration is considerably better with 692 million+ users. Yet around 762 million Indians have not made that shift, owing to lack of awareness/ understanding, high rates, etc. This is just one example of the huge gap that still exists when it comes to Internet accessibility, which then bleeds into the Web3 sector as well,” notes Prasad.

Adding further, she says that to battle this, the tech community would need to get onground to provide Internet access, affordable hardware, and frequent campaigns to increase adoption pervasively. Apart from the above key challenges, there are several other shortcomings of the industry as well such as cumbersome and expensive hardware, artificial intelligence bias which will increase as we include AI more into our lives, gender disparity, cyber security, etc. These obstacles would need larger frameworks and regulations that the global tech leaders along with government bodies would need to collaborate for.

KredX’s Madhusmita Panda says that the Metaverse opens a whole new host of challenges along with many opportunities.

It creates a world of infinite possibilities for brands to create experiences in entirely new relationship-building ways. Cyber-attacks could affect the brand and its customers. Enterprises at their end need to have ethical and transparent practices for the use of data being collected. Biometric data is already available through virtual reality headsets that track a user’s environment, physical movements, and dimensions when they use an XR device. The VR devices that allow people to access the Metaverse, companies can use it to track body movements, virtual environments a person goes in, and their physiological response to an experience, like heart rate. There have been several incidents in the past few years where apps have exposed personal and even medical information. Moreover, Brain-computer interfaces (BCI) are soon to be a way to access the Metaverse. BCI technology can track brain wave patterns and thought processes through machine learning. A direct link to someone’s brain opens whole new types of data to be collected and analysed.

According to Panda, governments and corporates will need to invest in cybersecurity to avoid data scandals and manipulation of brands. “Deep fakes, hacked avatars, and manipulated objects are some of the types of malicious behaviour corporates will have to stay on top of. Companies can prepare themselves for the Metaverse by developing best practices to guide ethical-based decision-making. Best practices should include how companies respect consumers’ data, how they respond to misinformation attacks, along with the type of technologies and experiences to use in the Metaverse,” she emphasises.

Traditional advertisers have to realise that Metaverse advertising will not be the same as what they have been doing all this while, says GOQii’s Vishal Gondal. “Advertisers will have to integrate their brand rather than be intrusive. For example, a brand like Nike could create a running track with a range of their Nike running shoes and your virtual avatar can choose one of the running shoes and run on the track inside the Metaverse. Integration of the brand has to be done beautifully with the experience of the Metaverse.”

This is an opportunity for brands to be more inclusive, says DaveAI’s Sriram PH. “Brands and enterprises, due to their corporation-led genes, always look at gaining control. But this new technology shift of Metaverse backed by Web3 aligned with blockchain and even crypto in some use cases give a unique opportunity to brands to give the control back to their customers or creators. Brands who embrace this change will see farther acceptance with the new generation of customers. This will also be deemed ethical because the vision will be to improve adoption of their brand and not tap into personal data or space of customers for profits. But this shift again will be evolutionary and will take the next decade to shape up. Brands who lead this change have a unique opportunity to set new standards,” he adds. 

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