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The risks and opportunities of the Metaverse

Metaverse hearing

“’I was there!’... The metaverse has what we might call ’near adjacent perceptual proximity’. We know that virtual reality is not real, but we experience it directly all the same, and we tend to respond, both bodily and psychologically, as though it were real,” said Verity McIntosh of the British Digital Cultures Research Centre, addressing a hearing of the PACE Culture Committee on “The risks and opportunities of the Metaverse” today.

Mrs McIntosh referred to the Metaverse as a possible form of “fully decentralised libertarianism”, a space deliberately existing outside societal norms and governance, with a strong belief among its users that the community using the space most confidently is best placed to understand and police its behaviours, while resisting external forms of oversight or accountability.

She referred to the most common harassment and abuse phenomena around it – mostly linked to racist, homophobic or transphobic language, as well as simulated violence, simulated sex and non-consensual touch – and highlighted that age limitations appear ineffective, while reporting processes and the consequences for breaching terms of service seem “very opaque”.

“Most headsets and platforms will say that their products are not designed for children under 12 or 13 years old,” she added. Research suggests that children have more difficulty in distinguishing between physical world and metaverse experiences, especially over time where memories can become conflated. “There are unresolved issues around the way that virtual reality impacts on developing optical, vestibular and neurological systems, and growing concerns about the way that child sexual offenders are gravitating towards these platforms for reasons of grooming and abuse,” she stated.

The Council of Europe has been considering how to address issues related to the digital sector for a while, said Patrick Penninckx, Head of the Information Society Department of the Organisation. “It started with Conventions such as the ones on Cybercrime or Data Protection, and more recently work on a global AI treaty. The aim is not to stifle technological innovation - but we start with a firm commitment to protect the human rights and freedoms of all individuals, not only in Europe but worldwide,” he said.

Given the technological expertise necessary to explore the topic, the Organisation decided to make the best use of the Digital Partnership and co-operation with partners in the tech field. The analysis and the conclusion of the study will explore the impact of the Metaverse and virtual realities in general on human rights, the rule of law and democracy, from the perspective of the Council of Europe, based on the European Convention on Human Rights and other existing instruments. “The aim is to understand whether the tools the Council of Europe already has in place are sufficiently comprehensive for such a new reality, or if further action is needed,” he said.

While the exact scope and impact of immersive virtual worlds on society and on the economy is still unknown, it can already be seen that the Metaverse will open up a range of opportunities but also a number of risks in a variety of policy areas. “Major tech companies are scaling up their Metaverse activities, with important repercussions for the world of business and issues related to data protection, cybersecurity, illegal and harmful behaviours, the impact on health, especially that of minors, and accessibility and inclusiveness,” he said.

“I would like to pave the way for a general reflection by the Parliamentary Assembly on this emerging phenomenon,” said Andi Lucian Cristea (Romania, SOC), rapporteur on the issue. “Each committee may then, if it deems it appropriate, address specific aspects of the Metaverse, such as digital territoriality, jurisdiction, policing and justice, political participation and fundamental freedoms, safety concerns, sexual assault and harassment, non-discrimination, children's rights, organised crime, money laundering, fraud, data protection and cybersecurity aspects,” he added.

“I believe it is essential to have a multi-stakeholder approach that involves governments, civil society and the private sector, as well as international organisations. It is important to ensure that the benefits of technological advances are distributed fairly across society and that the negative impacts are mitigated, especially for the most vulnerable groups,” Mr Cristea concluded.