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Safeguarding the Metaverse: Why regulation must not lose pace with emerging technologies

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)

5 min read Partner content

Technological change can be rapid and bewildering. Aspects of technology that are now commonplace would have been simply unimaginable just a few years ago.

The pace of change creates a challenge for legislators and regulators when it comes to ensuring that emerging technologies are used in a way that keeps users safe and benefits to society.

“Technology moves very quickly but legislation and regulatory rules inevitably develop at a much slower pace,” Ahmed Kotb, The IET’s Digital Lead tells The House.  “When it comes to seismic shifts in the technological landscape, this can be a major problem. It means that legislation and regulation are always a step behind the technology. This can create risks for the public and opportunities for exploitation and abuse.”

Nowhere is this risk more apparent than in the rapidly developing Metaverse. The Metaverse is widely regarded as the next iteration of our online lives and potentially will bring enormous benefits to business and society.  By allowing multiple users to interact in a virtual space without the need for real-world proximity it could deliver exciting new opportunities in healthcare, leisure, creative and industrial sectors.

However, the Metaverse also brings risks for users that need to be addressed at industry, regulatory, and government levels.

Finding effective ways to address these risks, and making sure that immersive online worlds are safe for users, is the focus of an important new report from the IET called “Safeguarding the Metaverse”.

This timely report highlights some of the key risks that may emerge from the Metaverse. It also calls on regulators and legislators to ensure that frameworks are put in place to manage those risks.  

“If we are going to maximise the benefits that come from technology, we also have to start with a clear understanding of the risks,” says Kotb. “There are a range of potential harms associated with virtual worlds, ranging from harassment and abuse to privacy and data concerns,” he tells us. “Managing those potential harms needs to be a responsibility shared by platform providers, legislators, and regulatory bodies.”

Government is increasingly conscious of the responsibility it has to keep users safe online, particularly if they are vulnerable. The Online Safety Bill, currently making its passage through the House, is designed to achieve this.

Introducing the Bill, Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for DCMS, stressed the critical importance of keeping Britons safe in digital environments.

“We don’t give it a second’s thought when we buckle our seat belts to protect ourselves when driving,” she says. “Given all the risks online, it’s only sensible we ensure similar basic protections for the digital age.”

However, as with seatbelts, protection works best when it is proactive rather than reactive. That is why the new IET report calls on policymakers to futureproof emerging legislation to keep the legislative and regulatory framework in step with emerging new technologies.

“The published Bill does apply to immersive technologies and the Metaverse,” Kotb explains, “But it needs some changes to make it futureproof to reflect the challenges of tomorrow as well as those of today. In particular, rather than focusing on published content, the Bill should also cover activity that happens in real-time Metaverse settings. This is currently a major gap”

However, the report is equally clear that this is not an issue that government can tackle alone. The IET is also demanding that technology companies step-up and take the initiative in protecting users from harm, particularly when it comes to harassment and abuse.  This needs to start by addressing the toxic online culture rather than simply relying on features such as “block and mute,” which put the responsibility on users.

Kotb also believes that if policymakers are to create effective rules for how new online environments operate, then they must develop their personal awareness of emerging technologies to learn more about how immersive platforms work.

“Legislation can sometimes feel like an analogue model in a digital world,” he explains. “Part of the issue is that this new technology takes time to become fully established. This means that policymakers are often unaware of the potential benefits and risks until it is too late to put preventative measures in place.”

To help increase awareness, the IET is now providing MPs and Peers with the equipment and support to spend some time in the Metaverse. The aim is that, by fast-tracking immersive literacy, politicians from across both houses will be better equipped to ensure that the right rules and regulations are put in place.

“Politicians wouldn’t make health policy without being familiar with hospitals and they wouldn’t make education policy without being familiar with schools,” explains Kotb. “The Metaverse is no different. We cannot expect policymakers to effectively legislate for an environment that they have not experienced?”

The emergence of the Metaverse does have risks but it will also potentially be an incredible tool for citizens and consumers to access experiences, products, and services in an entirely new way.

However, if we are to reap those benefits then user safety has to be at the heart of our approach. This report is an important and timely reminder of the practical steps we can all take to ensure that new virtual worlds remain safe for everyone.

You can find out more about the IET's new report: Safeguarding the Metaverse here

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