Technology platforms have long been the subject of legal debate and scrutiny, but Facebook’s unprecedented vision for the metaverse is adding additional layers of complexity to the argument.
In its effort to create a type of digital environment where businesses and consumers can participate without the limitations imposed by their physical reality, Facebook (or ‘Meta’ as it’s now known), is raising major questions about the law and how it will function in our future world(s).
What is the Metaverse?
Though still in its infancy and vaguely defined, the metaverse is generally a type of online experience that allows users to access a shared digital environment by entering it through virtual reality (VR) or by bringing it to your own reality through augmented reality (AR) or extended reality (ER) technology.
Through a combination of these technologies, tech companies claim that the metaverse will allow people and businesses to live and function in a digital universe.
Proponents like Facebook, which owns the VR company Oculus, imagine that users will be able to work, play, and interact with others through everything from concerts and conferences to virtual vacations. In the always-on online world, people would be able to shop, exchange goods and services, and even acquire and develop property, and businesses would be able to cater to their whims.
If this sounds like the stuff of science fiction, that’s because it somewhat is. Sci-Fi writers have for decades written about characters who enter and plug into alternate realities, albeit often because their own realities are in various states of decay or collapse. Nevertheless, we’re closer to creating expansive digital worlds that very much resemble futuristic concepts dreamed up in the past. And in doing so, we’re raising challenging questions about how our laws and physical realities will adapt.
The Shift to a Virtual World
Just as the metaverse will have major implications for entertainment, advertising, society and the economy, it will also have implications for our laws and legal constructs. This includes a need to address the legal issues associated with creating a shared digital world that can be accessed from various devices and technologies produced by various companies, as well as matters related to the ownership of content and intellectual property, data protection, and privacy.
Another legal implication of the metaverse and other mixed reality platforms concerns the transition from the physical world to a virtual one.
Our laws are linked to the physical world and in many cases are anchored to a real, geographical area. Certain acts that take place in the state of Arizona, for example, may not be crimes or actionable conduct if they occurred somewhere else. But what if they occurred in digital space? What jurisdiction is that? If a person were to inhabit, work in, and interact with a particular part of the metaverse more than their own physical location, would they be subject to immigration laws? Similarly, would laws that rely on our shared definition of “person,” “injury,” or even “public” be prosecutable in a virtual space? Can a person’s avatar suffer a personal injury? Could it be charged with public indecency?
By shifting our commercial and social activities into a digital reality, the metaverse creates a dynamic in which the physical world, where our established legal orders exist and typically prevail, doesn’t always harmoniously blend with the virtual environment, especially when the environment is one where code and conduct can be determined, regulated, and enforced by entities other than the government.
And while private companies and social media platforms have always exercised some form of authority over their respective domains, one can argue that transitioning to the Metaverse in such a significant way could empower private entities like Facebook with the ability to determine what is and isn’t law in a virtual setting. This could have major implications for everything ranging from “real estate” transactions and commercial contracts to the conduct of individuals as they interact with others in a virtual space.
Our team at MayesTelles doesn’t have answers to these complex questions, nor do we have a crystal ball to predict with any degree of certainty what our laws will look like in the future. As attorneys with extensive experience in criminal defense, personal injury, and other matters of the law, however, we closely track developments in our practice areas to anticipate changes in the legal landscape and provide our clients with responsive and up-to-date representation. Should the metaverse become a reality, we’re prepared to adapt with it and tackle the resulting legal matters involved.