The Long Road to Addressing Digital Safety in the Metaverse
While we don't yet have the answers as to how to make sure the metaverse is a safe space, by asking the right questions, we will be on the right path as we continue to navigate the digital world.
Are we ready for the metaverse? It seems we are all eager to experience it, yet we have not dimensioned its depth and complexity.
The metaverse promises to shift our perception of reality, but it's not without safety risks. It hasn't taken long for alarming tales of safety violations in the metaverse to spread. Though it's still in its nascent stages, early testers have been intimidated, sexually assaulted and subjected to racist tirades. Indeed, if immersive games have told us anything, it's that users of these spaces are constantly at risk.
After years of experience facing the challenges of social media and gaming platforms, we now understand the complexity of the risks we could face in the metaverse. Consequently, this may be the right time to start planning for digital safety. We need to understand potential risks, design different scenarios to face them, and leave enough room for dealing with the unknown if we are to make the metaverse a safe, productive tool for humanity.
What is the metaverse?
The metaverse is a 3D virtual reality world that strives to be a true augmentation of human reality and the evolution of today's internet. It is basically the internet as we know it but with the addition of a fully immersive experience that allows users to go from a concert to a mall, buy clothing or even rent real estate.
Even though it is an emerging technology, we have been experiencing the early stages of the metaverse for years now. It became a trend in 2010 when we saw the first Oculus Rift VR prototype. Then in 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus, Samsung and Sony announced their VR launches, and the rest is history. The metaverse is a culmination of the virtual reality and augmented reality tech we've been immersed in over the past decade.
Today, it is quickly becoming one of the leading players of disruption, shifting paradigms on human interactions, how we experience basic moments of life and even academic and work opportunities. It is also transforming the labor market and generating new income opportunities for thousands of people who are now providing services within the ecosystem — according to PWC, the metaverse could be worth $1.5 trillion by 2030.
As many have said, as with any new innovation, there will be great opportunities but also great risks brought on by the metaverse.
Same challenges, different technology
The fact is digital risks are already high, and as we learn more about the metaverse, we understand they will go even higher.
The metaverse promises to emulate the real world in a digital ecosystem, which means every little interaction will be replicated. From a diagnostic perspective, this will imply an assessment of each interaction as we know them today to try to understand the potential risks of this new ecosystem. A good start to assessing the upcoming threats is learning from the social media challenges we have faced, which have taught us valuable lessons in data privacy, user authentication, policy violations and freedom of speech.
Some known risks include emotional hazards, which are already present in social media and could easily worsen in the metaverse. However, other unknown scenarios will require different safety policies, systems and frameworks, such as inappropriate touching. The reality is your avatar can be touched, bullied and harassed in the digital world. Imagine cyberbullying in the metaverse — avatars could follow you around and verbally harass you, and the metaverse feels much more real and tangible than comments on a social media page.
Many of the possible violations in the physical world will be present in the metaverse, while bad actors possess anonymity. This takes me to one of the most concerning aspects of the metaverse: child safety.
As we are replicating all scenarios of real life, my mind immediately travels to the risks for this curious, excited, yet vulnerable demographic. One of the key goals of the ecosystem should be designing the right frameworks to ensure trust and safety for all the actors involved, including and with a particular focus on children. Policies on user authentication to avoid impersonation, foundational principles to prevent child exploitation, right safe gates to block inappropriate content for kids and even designing safe journeys for their enjoyment should be at the top of the list of priorities for developers, policymakers and trust and safety experts.
The steps we need to take
There are several steps we can start taking now to secure this future world for ourselves and our children. However, this isn't an easy problem to solve, and it will take a coordinated effort from multiple sectors. The industry will need to partner with the government, academia, private institutions and civil society to address the upcoming challenges of this emerging technology. Although not everyone will agree on standards for behavior or what consequences should follow unacceptable interactions, a dialogue about these issues is needed.
Companies are already hard at work creating ways to enforce personal boundaries in the metaverse. We can already address deepfakes by using identity verification technology like biometric authentication, blockchain and other methods.
One effective action is planning based on forbidden behaviors in the real world. This applies to both community guidelines and formal laws. Updating these principles to match the new reality proposed by the metaverse will allow a better adaptation and reduce potential harm to the most vulnerable audiences.
A new yet familiar problem
The metaverse is new and developing so rapidly that we don't yet have great answers to these complex questions of safety. Just as online threats are constantly evolving, so too will the threats we face in the virtual world. People are innovative — sometimes cybercriminals most of all. We must stay vigilant in the face of these challenges, apply previous lessons learned and keep seeking solutions as more of our lives expand into the metaverse. By asking the right questions, enabling tough discussions and challenging paradigms, we will be on the right path to keeping people safe in the metaverse.
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