An introduction to the ethical, legal, and social concerns of virtual reality
“Would you rather experience a wonderful natural beauty (a beach, a waterfall, a forest) in real life or through virtual reality, where water, colors, and birds will be nothing but pixels? If the former, maybe we are not investing our resources in the right way”
Twitter post, Carissa Veliz, 25 January 2022
Facebook has renamed itself ‘Meta’ but it is much more than a name. The company is developing a digital universe, a new interactive virtual platform, with Mark Zuckerberg as its CEO. This newly claimed digital universe is called The Metaverse1, and in a recent YouTube Video Zuckerberg defines it as a ‘new technological improvement in the way humans interact with the world’. Although the Metaverse is not yet on the market, it is not science fiction either, as it is now being developed and advertised. However, there is not much clarity into what really is The Metaverse, nor how it will impact our lives. This blog post offers an introduction to this digital universe and a critical approach to reflecting on its impact on society, especially the ethical, social, and legal issues that can arise in the future.
Meta is not the only company that develops this type of technology, this is a cutting-edge industry that is growing and will influence the (digital) world as we know it. Other companies are developing similar digital universes, also named virtual worlds, such as Second Life. However, the monopolistic and global character of Meta, a company with more than 2.9 billion users globally, makes its technology more impactful and able to reach billions of users around the world. While ethicists and philosophers of technology have long claimed the importance to analyse the technology before it is introduced in society – and before it has already been sold and used by billions of people – The Metaverse is approaching and will have a strong impact in society, just as Facebook did.
The lack of ethical discussion or citizen involvement in new emerging technologies has often led to no deliberation into what kind of influence it could have, nor how to avoid its negative or harmful consequences. This is what ethicists have been dealing with in their ethical assessment of new emerging technologies2 which often consists of foresight analysis, (an analysis of the future scenarios of emerging technologies). In this blog post, I will introduce a short description of the future of The Metaverse, regarding its ethical, social, and legal implications, to start the debate and to prevent more negative consequences before its introduced.
But what really is the Metaverse? – According to Zuckerberg, this technology is what we should be aiming towards as a society, a more embodied and ‘natural’ technology that will make us experience the world in a ‘richer way’. To make it an embodied experience, it uses different technologies such as augmented reality glasses, enabling a better immersive digital experience. The users can ‘perceive’ and interact digitally in a more realistic way, rather than through a screen, but through different embodied technologies. The goal is to make it even more connected with people’s senses, such as to have a sense of feeling in the digital world. Zuckerberg shows in one of his Instagram posts an image of the new gloves that will be able to produce a sense of touch. The Metaverse is portrayed as a universe in which users can interact, play games, and also work or attend concerts on the other side of the world. Zuckerberg also emphasises how The Metaverse is not only a digital world separated from reality, but rather intertwined with the real world, such as receiving calls or creating digital street art accessible, for example, with VR glasses while walking in the city. The future is, as Zuckerberg envisioned it, an even more embodied digital experience. The Metaverse is also full of new possibilities that will also impact the way people perceive themselves. To interact on this platform people will use avatars – 3D representations of us in the digital world – such as bunnies or spiders, but can also be human-like representations, anything that designers can create digitally. Just like video games, users will be able to experience themselves differently, not only to play but rather ‘to be’ a different character. Everything can be represented in The Metaverse, as it will allow the creation of entire worlds where you can interact, e.g., science-fiction movies, allowing the user to interact with different worlds.
To assess the future impact of The Metaverse in society, it is important to reflect on current social networks. It is the case that the most important social networks are owned by the same company Meta, such as Facebook or Instagram. These offer a good basis from which we can extract information for the future of this digital universe due to the similarities with the new digital environment to communicate, advertise products or create and organise events.
While social networks aim at connecting people, studies have shown that the number of real friends of a person in the US has decreased by more than a third in the last two decades3, making social networks create, in fact, fragile connections. Authors warned of the influence of computers in this regard:
“ […] they seem, however, to lower the probability of having face-to-face visits with family, neighbours, or friends in one’s home) [ … ] note that Internet usage may even interfere with communication in the home, creating a post-familial family where family members spend time interacting with multiple computers in the home, rather than with each other. They suggest that computer technology may foster a wider, less-localized array of weak ties, rather than the strong, tightly interconnected confidant ties that we have measured here”
McPherson, Smith-Lovin, Brashears, 2006
Other scholars have similarly argued how social relations, such as friendship, need more than digital networks to subsist, where the physical component is important to build close relationships4. In this regard, in a Dublin City University (DCU) talk, Dr. Brian Davis warns about the reduction of face-to-face socialization which increases depression and influences mental health, especially with children, such as cyberbullying. Thus, studies have shown how social networks decrease close connections with people in the nearby environment, while increasing superficial connections globally, and they emphasize the importance of face-to-face interaction to build meaningful relations. Despite all this, Meta introduces The Metaverse as a platform that will make us ‘closer’, without acknowledging how previous social networks have, in fact, decreased deeper relations. While I am not neglecting the benefits of Meta and other social networks, as they also had a beneficial impact such as facilitating our ability to reach people at a distance and to create groups, it is important to evaluate the societal issues of this immersive technology that pretends to change the way we interact with the world.
The issues with current social networks are not limited to fragile connections, they also have strong implications in the lack of privacy and personal data protection, the new digital society has brought many issues – such as the exploitation of user’s interests and vulnerabilities to selling products5, lack of transparency, the acceleration of misinformation and fake news6 especially recently among Covid misinformation7, and the creation of addictive behaviour that also impact our minds, also referred as ‘dark patterns’. As the author Ström in the book Surveillance and Globalization argues:
‘… corporations like Google and Facebook make the majority of their money from profitable distractions in the so-called attention economy, they design their systems to be as addictive and compulsive as possible. This involves exploiting psychological susceptibilities, ranging from our deep desire for social connection, through to shallow impulses for instant gratification. […] Studies have shown that students who do not use phones in class take more detailed notes, recall more details from their classes, and score a full letter grade half higher in comparison to their fellow students who actively used their phones. […] Research like this points towards an enormous contradiction, for some levels these devices greatly increase one’s ability to think and engage, and yet on other levels, they appear to undermine these very activities’
Timothy Erik Ström, Globalization and Surveillance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), pp. 86-87.
While people’s data is being massively gathered by social networks and has been used to exploit people’s interests and vulnerabilities e.g., marketing personalization, one can expect the same type of business model reproduced in The Metaverse. This economy has many names, most recently defined as ‘surveillance capitalism’5, but also, ‘informational capitalism’8 or ‘data economy’9. It is the practice of using people’s data to gather information about them and sell more personalised products, or to keep users engaged, among others. This is, of course, not exempt from criticism, as these practices have been proven to be dangerous for individuals, with companies having access to private information. Following this, The Metaverse will facilitate the gathering of people’s data and metadata10 by making it more interactive, with new gadgets; it will now be possible to retrieve data such as the ability of individuals to have quick reflexes, their health patterns (e.g., how fast they can jump, run or how good they score while playing tennis), where they move, the eyes movements (what they look at in the streets), our concentration when we read etc. in just one digital platform that aims to be as immersed as possible in our daily lives. If The Metaverse becomes part of reality, of our daily lives, individuals will interact more with this platform, therefore providing more information (data) about themselves, both physically and psychologically.
Similarly, at DCU’s talk, Dr. Park points out how digital platforms play a role in our behaviour and offers the example of how Facebook was used to incite violence in Myanmar11 as well as how the same platform was used to raise money to support local causes. Thus, just like previous social networks, The Metaverse will influence how people interact but also how they make sense of the world. In such a way, the user will live in a digital world and experience her/himself as an avatar, offering possibilities of new online identities12 and different behaviours that will be modified by the platform that will have the power to influence specific behaviours. The Metaverse will significantly change people’s perceptions, to the point that will impact even further people’s minds and bodies, just as current social networks do, from recommendation systems and filter bubbles to future avatars, and thus what people will see in the (real) world. The filter bubble refers to algorithmic systems that analyze patterns and reproduce similar content, therefore users receive constantly similar information, creating a reinforcement and leading to extreme and circular views. Dr. Park argues in favour of companies’ responsibility: “social media platforms should do more to encourage pro-social behaviour and discourage online harm” and whereas this is still happening in current social networks, The Metaverse will disrupt even more the way people interact with the world. Regulatory bodies and companies like Meta should consider the impact that The Metaverse brings to society, whether it is the increased capacity for surveillance, data-gathering, the invasion of privacy or the dangers of manipulative techniques.
Social networks have also expanded deepfakes13, where technology reduces our capacity to distinguish what is real (or true) and what is not; and have also created what was named ‘filter bubbles’14,15. It is probable that political movements and other relevant content will move to The Metaverse, thus creating the same type of content bias. The dangers are still present within The Metaverse, and it is only going to increase the power to generate false realities and content bias.
The lack of privacy and data protection cannot be underestimated, even with recent efforts in the EU to increase protections in the digital world, however, these efforts are considered not enough16. The EU has in place the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that grants rights to protect citizens against the misuse of their (personal) data, however, there are still many problems such as the exploitation of people’s data through profiling, biases and disinformation within current social networks that are outside the regulatory framework. For example, the EDPB cookie’s consent guidelines. Cookies could be a thing of the past with virtual reality, and it is necessary to consider that cookie’s consent or agreement to terms of service will no longer be sufficient. There are new regulatory proposals such as the Artificial Intelligence Act (AI Act), the Digital Service Act (DSA), the Digital Markets Act (DMA), the Data Governance Act (DGA), or even the proposition for new digital rights. Meta will still introduce a virtual reality in which these laws should account to protect citizens from the unbalance of power and data exploitation with this immersive technology. For example, in the same video Zuckerberg has surprisingly also argued, quite rapidly, how devices will be much more interactive, allowing us to access The Metaverse with our thoughts:
“[…] you can quickly jump into the metaverse from existing platforms. There will be new ways of interacting with devices that are much more natural, instead of typing or tapping, you are going to be able to gesture with your hands, say a few words, or even make things happen just by thinking about them”
As if The Metaverse will be a futuristic technology able to read our thoughts (without further explanation) the implications of this technology in privacy and data protection legislation are worth the attention. New tools must be developed to protect citizens from abuse and misleading technological design. It seems controversial to say the least that despite all these issues mentioned, Zuckerberg’s only reference to privacy in that video, or any other social issue, is the following:
“…privacy and safety need to be built into the metaverse from day one. You’ll get to decide when you want to be with other people, when you want to block someone from appearing in your space, or when you want to take a break and teleport to a private bubble to be alone”
To conclude, our society is still dealing with negative consequences of social networks such as addictiveness and misinformation that affect individuals and democracies17, lawyers, data protection experts, ethicists or philosophers of technology must be aware of The Metaverse, and they must propose tools that protect citizens that are in line with new developments in technologies. The Metaverse must be responsible and accountable for psychological effects, and its design must be assessed. Regulatory bodies should consider the changes of The Metaverse in society, whether it is the increased data-gathering, the invasion of privacy or the dangers of manipulative techniques. This technology has the power to facilitate the gathering of data from people, in an already extremely surveilled digital society, and it will only exponentially increase its capacity to influence perceptions and analyze its users. Yet, scholars argue that we should avoid “ethics washing” among regulatory frameworks and we should enforce current regulatory tools – and not only ethical guidelines that are not mandatory for companies like Meta. I consider that it is also necessary to look beyond current laws, and examine the ethical and social issues of new and emerging technologies, as there is more we can do to improve data protection regulations that contain outdated and non-useful tools like Privacy Policies and Terms of Services. Even more, to question, ethically and legally, the issues that we, as a society, will face when The Metaverse arrives. The question remaining is – Will The Metaverse benefit our lives? – After 18 years since the creation of Facebook, we must learn from the mistakes of social networks, and reduce the negative consequences of this new digitally embodied reality, a more persuasive technology that will influence our lives even further, and we must question how it will affect society and individuals.
This blog post could not have been possible without the help of my co-supervisor Rosamunde Van Brakel, and the valuable comments and encouragement of my colleagues at the LSTS department Pablo R.T. Kramcsak and Juraj Sajfert.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 813497 (PROTECT).
- It should not be confused with the idea of the Multiverse which refers to a hypothesis in the field of physics that portrays various parallel universes.
- Philip Brey, “Ethics of Emerging Technology,” n.d., 17. Philip A. E. Brey, “Anticipating Ethical Issues in Emerging IT,” Ethics and Information Technology 14, no. 4 (December 2012): 305–17, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-012-9293-y. Federica Lucivero, Tsjalling Swierstra, and Marianne Boenink, “Assessing Expectations: Towards a Toolbox for an Ethics of Emerging Technologies,” NanoEthics 5, no. 2 (August 2011): 129–41, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11569-011-0119-x. Luciano Floridi and Andrew Strait, “Ethical Foresight Analysis: What It Is and Why It Is Needed?,” Minds and Machines 30, no. 1 (March 2020): 77–97, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11023-020-09521-y.
- Miller McPherson, Lynn Smith-Lovin, and Matthew E. Brashears, “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades,” American Sociological Review 71, no. 3 (June 1, 2006): 353–75, https://doi.org/10.1177/000312240607100301.
- Robin Dunbar, “How Many ‘Friends’ Can You Really Have?,” IEEE Spectrum 48, no. 6 (2011): 81–83, https://doi.org/10.1109/MSPEC.2011.5783712.
- Shoshana Zuboff, “Surveillance Capitalism and the Challenge of Collective Action,” New Labor Forum 28, no. 1 (January 1, 2019): 10–29, https://doi.org/10.1177/1095796018819461.
- Julie Posetti, “News Industry Transformation: Digital Technology, Social Platforms and the Spread of Misinformation and Disinformation,” 2018, 15.
- Eamonn Forde, “Rogan In The Free (Speech) World: Neil Young Wants To Pull Music From Spotify Over Podcast Host Controversy,” Forbes, accessed March 18, 2022, https://www.forbes.com/sites/eamonnforde/2022/01/25/rogan-in-the-free-speech-world-neil-young-wants-to-pull-music-from-spotify-over-podcast-host-controversy/.
- “Between Truth and Power – Julie E. Cohen – Google Libros,” accessed December 10, 2021, https://books.google.be/books?hl=es&lr=&id=DDGoDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=Cohen,+J.+E.+(2019).+Between+truth+and+power:+The+legal+constructions+of+informational+capitalism.+Oxford+University+Press,+USA.&ots=huoKU5h05h&sig=OnuzdfIxqYwWTPsvoMKIf4EVaRw&redir_esc=y.
- “Communication on Building a European Data Economy, Digital Single Market, COM(2017) 9 final”, European Commission, https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/communication-building-european-data-economy.
- Refers to new data acquired from previous data.
- Alexandra Stevenson, “Facebook Admits It Was Used to Incite Violence in Myanmar,” The New York Times, November 6, 2018, sec. Technology, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/06/technology/myanmar-facebook.html.
- Sherry Turkle, “Cyberspace and Identity,” Contemporary Sociology 28, no. 6 (November 1999): 643, https://doi.org/10.2307/2655534.
- Edvinas Meskys et al., “Regulating Deep Fakes: Legal and Ethical Considerations,” SSRN Scholarly Paper (Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, December 2, 2019), https://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=3497144.
- Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble: What The Internet Is Hiding From You (Penguin UK, 2011).
- “TikTok’s Algorithm Leads Users from Transphobic Videos to Far-Right Rabbit Holes,” Media Matters for America, accessed March 17, 2022, https://www.mediamatters.org/tiktok/tiktoks-algorithm-leads-users-transphobic-videos-far-right-rabbit-holes. Investigation: How TikTok’s Algorithm Figures Out Your Deepest Desires,” WSJ, accessed March 17, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/video/series/inside-tiktoks-highly-secretive-algorithm/investigation-how-tiktok-algorithm-figures-out-your-deepest-desires/6C0C2040-FF25-4827-8528-2BD6612E3796.
- Rocco Bellanova, “Digital, Politics, and Algorithms: Governing Digital Data through the Lens of Data Protection,” European Journal of Social Theory 20, no. 3 (August 2017): 329–47, https://doi.org/10.1177/1368431016679167.
- Carole Cadwalladr and Emma Graham-Harrison, “Revealed: 50 Million Facebook Profiles Harvested for Cambridge Analytica in Major Data Breach,” The Guardian, March 17, 2018, sec. News, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election.