It’s a term on the tip of everyone’s tongue and yet still a concept that lacks a clear definition. It’s an idea that is capturing the brightest minds at the biggest technology companies—Apple, Meta nee Facebook, Microsoft—and yet no one really knows what it will be. It’s the metaverse.
While questions remain, what we do know is that it’s coming. Arguably, it already exists. We know it will integrate today’s internet with virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and blockchain technology. We know it’s going to be a place where people will interact with each other, where they will buy and sell goods and services, where communities will form around education, culture, entertainment, and faith, and where the traditional boundaries of personal data, property, and privacy will be thrown wide open. We know it’ll resemble, in some ways, the digital world we already know and, in others, it will be completely different.
Finally, it will be a place where our current social structures—our governments, our schools, our religious institutions, our social service agencies, our cultural and political organizations—will have to quickly adapt if they want to play a meaningful role.
It’s obvious that issues of safety, privacy, taxation, worker classification, and consumer regulation that already preoccupy the tech world today will all be critical to the functioning of the metaverse. We also know that it will function around and beyond traditional sovereign borders—all of which makes it both really exciting and potentially dangerous.
While policymakers can’t develop specific, detailed regulations for the metaverse until we have a better sense of what’s actually coming, we can avoid making the same mistakes we did with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and social media generally if we can develop an intellectual framework for regulating the metaverse now.
Based on what we know about the metaverse, I believe:
- The problems we have regulating technology companies now will be reproduced and amplified in the metaverse. You thought that policing state-sponsored disinformation is hard on Facebook and Twitter. Wait until you try it in 3-D.
- The first order of business must be to do no harm to children. We have allowed the digital world to evolve in ways that are uniquely harmful to young minds. We must avoid perpetuating this grave error.
- Governing the metaverse will necessitate the active involvement and coordination of three main constituencies and a new paradigm of cooperation and accountability. It starts with the companies themselves who need to develop their own safeguards and protections from the ground up and not wait to feign surprise at the bad things that emerge. Then we will need contributions from private groups with specific interests and expertise, such as parents, mental-health professionals, free-speech advocates, constitutional-law theorists, civil rights activists, futurists, and many more. Finally, there is our government, which must ditch its own timid, wait-and-see approach and proactively guide this process.
The metaverse, after all, is a human endeavor and as such it will attract and harbor its share of destructive human behavior. That is no reason to be afraid of it or to come out against it. Rather, it’s a reason to develop innovative ideas about governance alongside its construction. The clearer we make the rules, the better the metaverse will be for everybody.
As we have seen so often with all types of emerging technology, especially social media platforms, regulators always arrive late to the game. Now is the time for leaders to begin asking the right questions. This is the chance to be thoughtful about how to regulate the metaverse. It means asking hard questions like:
- Who runs the metaverse?
- Who maintains it?
- Who’s in charge?
- How do you regulate a digital entity designed to transcend sovereign borders?
- How do you ensure safety in a digital, non-sovereign concept? How do you prevent consumer fraud and protect against online predators?
- Who has the legal power to do this?
- What are the risks of terrorism in the metaverse?
- How would counterterrorism work?
- How should privacy rights work?
- How about taxation and consumer protection?
- Do people own their own data? Is it portable?
- How do you handle worker classification?
- How do you regulate industries that move largely online, like gaming?
- How do you avoid another digital divide?
- Can you move government services onto the metaverse? If so, which ones? Education? Health care? Voting? The DMV?
There are so many questions and at the moment, so few answers.
Once a new technology is fully developed and offered to the public, good luck putting the genie back in the bottle. But if regulators take the time and put in the effort to think about the metaverse now, about the threats and opportunities it poses, it can, for once, get out ahead of new technology rather than starting from behind.
Imagine creating a version of JASON—a group of elite scientists from academia and industry who have advised the U.S. government on critical issues since the Cold War—but specifically for the metaverse. Imagine working groups, formed and activated now, of agency professionals, think tank gurus, technology experts, scientists, legal scholars, social psychologists, state regulators, and maybe a few elected officials who can start tackling the questions raised in this memo. Imagine being ahead of the curve for once.
So let’s get out ahead of it. This is the chance to get it right.
Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist, and political strategist.