The world’s leading neurologists assembled in Seattle earlier this month for a Symposium on Eye Tracking Research and Applications. The event was sponsored by Google and Reality Labs, which is a division at Meta Platforms, Inc., previously known as Facebook.
Poets say the eyes are the window into a person’s soul. The neurologists, who are not as romantically inclined, discovered that our thoughts can be revealed by the movements of our eyes. The companies that once harnessed psychological research to design products that would hold the user’s attention are now probing how to build a new business—the metaverse—around neurological science.
The move from today’s internet to the metaverse can be described as an evolution from participation to observation. In the 2-D web experience, users observe the content of the page. The 3-D metaverse utilizes optical equipment to connect the user to algorithms that put them “inside” a pseudo-world. Facebook has become so confident in its future, that Meta Systems, Inc. was renamed Meta Systems, Inc. and invested $10 Billion last year to develop metaverse products.
You can think of the metaverse as a surveillance world. Meta already has patent technology that allows for eye and facial tracking in the optical devices used to enter the metaverse. The metaverse devices can be used to track you and make it easier to find out what is going on than a lie detector.
In short, the biometric data collected from metaverse users will make the privacy issues around in the current online environment seem like child’s play. The benefits of tracking clicks and keystrokes are negligible compared to the possibility of tracking emotions using biometric data. Beyond the implications to the individual of gathering of private information, there’s the matter of whether the companies that have dominated social media through their dominance of data will similarly dominate biometric data and use it to crush new metaverse entrants.
These new concerns raise serious questions regarding the appropriate standards of behavior for metaverse companies, and whether or not governments both on one side or the other of the Atlantic can address them. It is now that we can start to envision the digital future. First, we need to decide what we love about the current digital world and what needs improvement.
The European Union’s much heralded and much needed Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA) attempt to establish behavioral expectations for the existing online experience. While the Acts have been adopted provisionally, it is not yet possible to establish the necessary regulatory infrastructure. This infrastructure will be required for the European Commission’s transformation from technocratic to regulatory.
No matter what structure it is, regulators will have to be able to adapt their regulatory capabilities to address not only the current problems but also any new developments like the metaverse. As a digital transition point, policymakers have the chance to make use of the metaverse. We like what we see on the web platforms and want them to keep going. What is it we don’t like and want to reform? With those decisions as baselines, what do we want the next iteration of the internet – the metaverse – to look like?
The rules for the digital age have been set by companies. They strongly resist any government attempts to regulate their activities. But, Sir Nick Clegg, Meta’s President of Global Policy, has perhaps opened the door. Clegg recently wrote of the need to “create thoughtful rules and put guardrails in place as the metaverse develops.”
The call for rules seems tantalizing, and it is worthy of being pursued. It will first be tested whether the E.U. regulatory system can meet these expectations. The first test will be whether the E.U. (or U.S.) regulatory structure can set baseline expectations for behavioral change to replace existing rules that platform companies have imposed on the marketplace. The second test is whether the regulation will be sufficiently agile to deal with what innovative technologists throw at us next—or whether, if it isn’t, the companies will once again end up writing their own rules.
The open-source technology provided by the internet allowed digital platforms like Facebook and Google to develop their own closed platforms. Policymakers were left watching from the sidelines as the development unfolded, not knowing what to make. All those innocent days have passed. All have learned what the consequences are of allowing companies to set their own rules. These consequences are magnified by the metaverse. It also raises the issue of what should we decide right now. We can also choose what digital future we desire, and what digital present we wish to achieve.
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