In this final part of the series, I’m going to cover important human rights considerations that must accompany the development of the Metaverse if we want it to succeed. If you’re just tuning in, you can find Part 1 here.
Human Rights Are Key
Having a good assortment of virtual worlds for fun, work, and safety is great, but there are ways that this can all go wrong, even if the Metaverse achieves mass adoption.
First, we need to make sure nobody is excluded based on things like race, religion, national origin, sex (including non-adherence to gender norms), age, etc.. These (along with disability, veteran status, genetic information, and citizenship) are already protected classes under United States non-discrimination laws, so it’s not a stretch to say that virtual spaces offering access to the public should abide by non-discrimination laws.
There are, of course, important exceptions to this (for example, a virtual church can probably continue to discriminate based on some of these if it violates their beliefs), but as a general rule, we need to make sure that people in society aren’t excluded from the myriad benefits of a Metaverse based on things that are out of their control.
Even if the organizer of a Metaverse experience doesn’t explicitly ban protected classes from participation, they could still create or turn a blind eye to a hostile virtual environment being created by participants. Freedom of speech, including hate speech, is protected in many countries, so we can’t demand that the government crack down on this. So we really need to make it a social norm to not host or participate in bigoted behavior in the Metaverse. We need to encourage the owners of virtual experiences to set good rules of conduct in the spaces they run, and actively enforce the rules.
We’ve seen platforms like Facebook do very poorly at this. Bigoted discussions, whole groups dedicated to the spreading and encouragement of it, and even planning for political violence meant to advance tyranny have all been a problem. How an entity privately controlling a virtual experience can best keep out this bad behavior is a matter for debate, but it’s a debate that needs to be had now, and not after it’s a problem.
At the same time, we do need to make sure governments don’t take a heavy hand and deny human rights in the Metaverse. Freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and other critical rights should be held sacred in the Metaverse just as they are in real life in any civilized country. We can’t let the Chinas and Saudi Arabias of the world bully their way (by force or economic sway) into imposing authoritarianism and censorship on the rest of us, even in the virtual world.
This may sound silly, but keep in mind that major Hollywood films end up being censored globally when the Chinese government objects to something in it. Why? Because movie studios can’t risk hundreds of millions of dollars and not get the profits from the Chinese market. Freedom of expression still theoretically exists outside of China, but we don’t get to enjoy it fully.
We also need to work with Metaverse providers and lawmakers to avoid having the Metaverse turn into a tool for mass manipulation, interference in elections, and other actions that we’ve seen be used against human rights in the past. The Donald Trumps of the world shouldn’t be allowed to steal or buy our personal data and then use it to target us for manipulation to sway elections. They should be free to buy advertising and otherwise spread their campaign messaging (subject to the rules of the platform, of course), but they shouldn’t be free to do shady things like they’ve done in the past.
Much of this comes down to privacy. We should know what’s being done with our personal data, and be able to have some control over it. We should have the ability to interact anonymously if the platform’s owners are OK with that (their house, their rules), so that we can truly feel free to express ourselves.
Encouraging Responsible Ownership of Metaverse Platforms
This probably all sounds like walking a tightrope, or even contradictory to some readers. We need to keep governments from being heavy-handed and authoritarian, while also discouraging platform owners from creating toxic, manipulative environments that not only keep the Metaverse from being a good place for human rights, but also have real world consequences that stifle human rights.
We really can do both.
First off, we should be voting with our dollars on these platforms. On Facebook, it was tempting to put up with bigotry and racism from Uncle Bill because we valued our online connection with them or at minimum didn’t want to get them angry at us, but that’s not something we can let continue. If a platform becomes a place that is toxic and degrading for others, it’s time to cut them out. Without us lending it our eyeballs for advertisers, Facebook would have never become the cesspool it became. Those of us who stubbornly kept using it (I’m guilty of this) are at least partially responsible for what happened next as it sucked in our elderly and conservative relatives and handed them to Donald Trump on a silver platter.
There has always been bigoted and evil websites on the internet, but people generally know it when they see a neo-Nazi or anti-gay website and can steer clear of it. If a neo-Nazi group creates a VR game that portrays the Holocaust and allows participants to act as Nazi guards, that’s so comically obvious in its hate that nearly everyone would stay away from it. Those sorts of things will exist, but they won’t do a lot to spread hatred. The lack of mass participation limits their influence and financial power.
The problem is platforms which profit from allowing the degradation of human rights while enlisting the rest of us unknowingly to keep it afloat. That’s the big thing we need to look out for and stay away from, and transparency is the key to doing that.
One other thing we can do is be careful to not support monopolies in the Metaverse as it develops. If your access to the Metaverse comes through a Meta device, across a Meta service, and only uses Meta spaces, then Meta will likely keep your business and time no matter how lousy they get on human rights. By seeking out other providers and splitting our time on other services, we can all work to make sure no one company becomes too powerful in the Metaverse.
Being able to quickly change providers and keep doing what we’re doing on the ‘verse (having fun, connecting with family, learning, working), nobody running a platform will feel like they can get away with being evil the way Facebook did.
If we can do all this, we can all benefit from the environmental and safety benefits that come from the Metaverse without trading for other problems.
Featured image: a screenshot from Meta’s presentation showing two men remotely playing chess in a park. One appears from elsewhere and looks like a Force Ghost from Star Wars. The other changed his avatar to have a lion’s head, for fun.