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OPINION: Passport to the metaverse? Learn from mistakes for a safer, virtual future

by James Alvarez Mourey | @mourey | DePaul University
Thursday, 27 January 2022 15:37 GMT

A visitor is pictured in front of an immersive art installation titled "Machine Hallucinations — Space: Metaverse" by media artist Refik Anadol, due to be converted into NFT and auctioned online at Sotheby's, at the Digital Art Fair, in Hong Kong, China September 30, 2021. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Why companies and the public need to acknowledge safety and security measures as the metaverse expands exponentially

By James Alvarez Mourey, DePaul University

The future is here, and it is meta.

Companies including Disney, Nike, and Walmart have recently filed patents to create virtual worlds , acquired companies specializing in virtual products and experiences and trademarked  digital extensions of their brands, indicating their confidence in the metaverse as the future of business.

Microsoft recently announced plans to acquire gaming company Activision Blizzard for an estimated $70 billion to secure its place within the metaverse.

The Sandbox recently announced plans to launch a $50 million accelerator program for 100 startups working on innovative digital products. 

The metaverse, or a collection of technology including virtual reality, augmented reality, virtual spaces as well as a digital economy, is comprised of  NFTs (non-fungible tokens), cryptocurrencies, and blockchain elements that facilitate online consumer transactions. 

At times, the metaverse allows for seamless exchanges and engagement between the real world and the virtual world, which opens exciting new opportunities for companies to connect with customers.

But while it may be easy to get lost in the excitement of something flashy and new, it is important not to miss the opportunity to set some guidelines that could mitigate many of the problems experienced with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok.

From companies harvesting and selling user data to technology platforms negatively impacting the mental health of young users, facilitating insurrections, or spreading misinformation, repeating these mistakes has the potential to thwart any positive value the metaverse might provide.

To be clear, as a university marketing professor who also serves as the director of a business technology laboratory, I advocate for embracing emerging technology, particularly innovations that bring greater value to consumers. But as someone who also researches consumer privacy and protection in technological contexts, I also know the importance of being proactive when it comes to consumers and technology.

As the metaverse further expands into daily transactions, there are ways to mitigate complications and solve potential problems.

Just as passports can help authorities identify and locate individuals, the metaverse can operate similarly. Research suggests cyberbullying and the spread of misinformation increase as a function of perceived online anonymity, so requiring metaverse users to verify their identity and “check in,” could mitigate these negative behaviors without completely sacrificing some degree of anonymity.

Over the years, FacebookInstagram, and Twitter have removed billions of fake accounts, but the metaverse must be proactive, not reactive, by requiring account validation up front. 

The counterpoint is that some oppressive governments may use this information to suppress free speech, but these countries already do that anyway.  If users do not say or do anything that would get them arrested in the real world, then there should not be any concern about free speech or individual rights in the metaverse.

Consumers value privacy, but they value privacy less when it feels difficult to manage and companies step in and offer to manage privacy for them. This is problematic, particularly when individuals feel less and less control over their privacy.

As companies shift to the metaverse, they can provide consumers with clear privacy options that are consistent from company to company, metaverse to metaverse. Sharing data often adds value. For instance, Amazon can recommend useful products or Spotify can suggest new songs.

While some consumers hesitate to share personal information considering recent data security breaches, such as those at tech giants Meta and Microsoft, President Joe Biden’s recent memo highlighting cybersecurity as a nationality priority may assuage consumer concerns.                                                                                                                  

Still, as data becomes easier to collect, share, and sell, individual consumers need to have full control over what personal information they are willing to share, with whom they are willing to share it, and for what purposes.

The complication here is that companies may say customers must share all data to have the best, most immersive metaverse experience. But the choice must belong to the individual, not the company.

If companies are so concerned about full data access, then need to tell customers specifically how they use their data to create valuable experiences.  That way, a customer can decide the extent to which they find those experiences to be worth their data, just like spending money on a product or service.

Another consideration is that product recommendations based on user data can help consumers discover valuable new products and services, but these recommendations often go awry.

Establishing common sense rules before the metaverse grows “too big to manage” has the potential to help both consumers and companies wishing to engage in this space. 

Some advocates argue that the metaverse must remain a decentralized space, preventing tech giants like Facebook (which deliberately renamed its umbrella company Meta) from dominating the space.

Many agree no single company should dominate the metaverse, but this just highlights the need to establish some basic, agreed upon rules and values today to ensure a civil, safe metaverse tomorrow.