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Sight Magazine – Essay: The Metaverse

The “metaverseseems to be the latest buzzword in tech. Generally speaking, the metaverse can be thought of as a form of cyberspace. Like the Internet, it is a world – or even a reality – beyond our physical world on Earth.

The difference is that the metaverse allows us to immerse a version of ourselves like avatar in its environment, usually by augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR), which people are and will increasingly be able to access using tools such as virtual reality glasses.

PICTURE: Thinkhubstudio/iStockphoto

While this all sounds very exciting, a curious jurist like me is inclined to wonder: who or what rules the metaverse? From my perspective, there are three key areas which, at this stage, are legally unclear.

1. An unlimited market
Transactions in the metaverse are usually monetized using cryptocurrency or NFT (non-fungible tokens). An NFT is a unique digital asset: it can be an image, a piece of music, a video, a 3D object or another type of creative work. The NFT market is booming – in some cases we are talking about Sales equivalent to millions of pounds.

“While this all sounds very exciting, a curious lawyer like me is inclined to ask: Who or what governs the Metaverse? From my perspective, there are three key areas that, at this point, are legally murky.”

While it’s hard to say whether this is just a trend or a new and exciting form of capital investment, these types of transactions raise some interesting legal questions.

For example, in the “real” world, when it comes to buying a work of art, property law dictates that ownership is dual. First, ownership can be attributed to the actual physical artwork. And second, the buyer may or may not own the intellectual property in the artwork, depending on the terms of the sale.

But what kind of property is specifically included in a digital art transaction? International law firm Reed Smith stated that “ownership” in the metaverse is nothing more than a form of licensing or provision of services. In such cases, the true ownership always belongs to the owner. This may mean, for example, that the buyer cannot sell the item without the real owner’s permission.

Virtual real estate has also become an NFT, with individuals and businesses spend huge sums own a “property” in the metaverse. Do the intricacies of land law apply here? For example, will real-world law cover trespassers on private lands in the metaverse? Can you take out a mortgage on your virtual property?

The metaverse may also be likely to host a virtual marketplace much like Silk Roadwhich was a dark web market selling illegal drugs, weapons and, allegedly, “murder for hire”. What kinds of laws can be put in place to prevent this from happening in the metaverse? The ideal would be to have a global regulatory authority overseeing the metaverse, although this would be difficult to implement.

2. Data
Another possible legal implication of the metaverse relates to data and data protection. The metaverse will expose new categories of our personal data for treatment. This can include facial expressions, gestures, and other types of reactions an avatar might produce when interacting in the metaverse.

The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) could arguably apply to the metaverse, just like the UK data protection law. But given the new nature of the metaverse, to ensure that users’ rights are protected, processes governing informed consent around data processing may need to be reviewed.

Additionally, the ‘borderless’ nature of the metaverse means that, while we can assume that the GDPR will apply, the provisions relating to the transfer and processing of data outside of the EU may need to be clarified. GDPR applies based on the subject’s location at the time of processing their data, not their country of origin or nationality.

So can we look at location based on who is operating the avatar, or is it more appropriate to look at the avatar itself, since it is the avatar data that will be processed? And if we look at the location of the avatar, how would we determine which jurisdiction the metaverse falls under?

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3. Interactions with users
When users interact through their avatars, we may have situations where some sort of altercation occurs, which would be tantamount to breaking the law, if it took place between people in the real world. Such incidents could be a violation of tort law (which covers civil actions such as negligence or nuisance) or criminal law (involving unlawful acts and crimes such as assault, murder, burglary or rapes).

Imagine that one avatar attacks another. Could we apply the criminal assault and battery laws to this situation? How could we make an avatar responsible for their actions in the metaverse? It would be complicated, because it would mean that we would have to assign a Corporation to the avatar, conferring upon it rights and duties within a legal order; allowing them to sue or be sued.

Proving assault or bodily harm would also be much more difficult as it usually requires “actual bodily harm”. In the metaverse, there will of course be no actual bodily harm. It would be difficult to prove harm, loss, or injury suffered by an avatar.

worrying, sexual predators are already emerging in the metaverse, cloaking their identity behind an avatar that cannot easily be traced back to its operator in the real world. For example, we have seen incidents of groping. Metaverse users can wear haptic vests or other technology that would allow them to feel the sensations if they were touched or groped.

Sexual Harassment Laws do not require physical contact to constitute sexual harassment. But are the existing laws adequate to deal with this issue? In the virtual reality and gaming environment, for example, whose responsibility is it to ensure user safety?

There’s no doubt that sexual harassment issues will make their way into the metaverse, especially if unscrupulous users know it’s a gray area. Believing that their actions cannot be proven, or that they cannot be held responsible for events occurring in the metaverse, could embolden such behavior.

This goes back to the question of corporate bodies of avatars – is a corporate body needed to hold avatars accountable for their actions in the metaverse? And what kind of standards and criteria should be put in place to distinguish between a “legal” avatar and the real legal person who exploits this avatar? These issues all need to be resolved before the Metaverse goes mainstream.The conversation

Lean Lau Pin is a lecturer in biological law at Brunel Law School | Artificial Intelligence Center: Social & Digital Innovations, Brunel University London. This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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