The Metaverse Needs a Constitution

If we want our virtual worlds to be free and open, they need rules. Or companies like Meta (Facebook) will make them for us.

CoinDesk Insights
Jan 8, 2022 at 7:09 p.m. UTC
Updated Jan 10, 2022 at 3:59 p.m. UTC

Stephanie Hurlburt is co-founder of Binomial, an image and texture compression company.

Rich Geldreich is co-founder of Binomial, an image and texture compression company.

The U.S. Constitution is the foundation of America, ensuring rights and responsibilities for every American. Today, another new world is being created as we speak: the metaverse. Without some of the same guiding principles, we fear the metaverse will fail as a public, open system and only recreate social media’s glaring flaws with steroids.

Before we knew it was capable of doing so, Facebook was shaping elections and Twitter was embroiled in scandals around its impact on public safety and censorship. Without due care, the metaverse could transform into a far more terrifying monster.

Rich Geldreich and Stephanie Hurlburt are tech entrepreneurs and co-founders of Binomial, an image and texture compression company.

We mustn’t become exploited by the metaverse. Rather, it should serve us. For that to happen, it needs a constitution.

First, its core building blocks must be made of open standards and open source code. Second, all data policies must be both transparent and understandable. Finally, any research conducted in the metaverse must be made instantly available to the public.

We must establish exactly what the metaverse is, and isn’t. Merriam-Webster describes the metaverse as “a highly immersive virtual world where people gather to socialize, play and work.” Many may feel that Merriam Webster’s definition of the metaverse accurately describes all of our lives over lockdown; the only place to engage with others is online. A rudimentary metaverse is already here, just now it has a name.

It’s also important to establish that the metaverse is not owned by one company and certainly wasn’t invented by Facebook. Rather, the company’s rebrand as Meta is a bid to co-opt, and therefore dominate the metaverse.

Facebook invested $10 billion in it this year alone. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates the market size for the metaverse could reach $800 billion by 2024. We might not know how it will turn out. All we know is that it is coming.

When social media first hit the scene, no one predicted it would be used to topple governments. Today, we are at that Pandora’s Box moment with the metaverse.

That’s why we are proposing a constitution for the metaverse. We believe it is critical to establish a simple set of rules that may help us prevent making the same mistakes we made in the past.

Before we enter the modern metaverse, we first have to establish who can access its key building blocks, and the answer should be everyone. When Tim Berners-Lee created the internet, he released key pieces as open-source code that were free and accessible for everyone.

His vision was that the internet would become a common good, just like public lands in America; a place owned consecutively by everyone and no one. The metaverse and future of the web must operate on the same principle. At the least, we should keep anything that is owned publicly visible and open for all to see and change.

The second principle of the metaverse must be that data policies are both transparent and understandable. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google may point to their data waiver. However, as everyone knows, not even the most diligent human brain could read, much less understand that infamous script.

If left unchecked, personal data mining and extraction in the metaverse could amount to the single most powerful surveillance mechanism ever invented. Through the metaverse and their contingent headsets, companies could harvest unimaginable amounts of eerie, biometric data. Before we allow ourselves or our children to run headfirst into this digital world, we must first know who is watching, and how.

A constitution for the metaverse may sound high-minded, but there are practical ways it can be implemented. Governments can create laws and regulations around fair play in the metaverse. A company’s earnings must be made public by law and a company’s research in the metaverse could easily follow a similar rulebook.

As far back as 2016, an internal Facebook report found that 64% of those people who joined an extremist group on Facebook had been recommended that group via Facebook’s algorithm, even though these findings weren’t made public. There’s no reason this form of coverup shouldn’t be made criminal by law.

While ultimate power flows from the government, companies have their role to play. It is common for consortiums of individuals and companies that come together to agree to a set of baseline rules (usually a patent pool or agreement to openly share data with the group) and create new standards that the industry agrees to follow. It is only a matter of collective will.

Yet, even multinational companies have a boss: the public. Apple’s privacy push and Facebook’s rebrand show that no matter the size of the company, public opinion reigns supreme. If the public displays enough appetite for a metaverse constitution, Big Tech’s hands will be tied.

This is not new territory; Tim Berners-Lee has already called for a global “bill of rights” for the web. At this critical juncture for the web, we’d be wise to heed his call.

Emerging technologies have a way of solving old problems whilst creating new ones. Tim Berners-Lee said that “day-to-day life on the web is like day-to-day life on the street, (it will) have its rough edges and its smooth edges.” A constitution for the metaverse would round those smooth edges, while protecting ourselves against the rough.

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