The Metaverse and the Rule of Law

February 24, 2022

Ian Whitehurst

Metaverse: a virtual-reality space in which users can interact with a computer-generated environment and other users (source: Oxford Languages).

As we enter the brave new world of the metaverse – its development and use raise interesting questions about the rule of law, the rights of the individual and how those principles can be protected not just from the owners and the creators of the metaverse but also from fellow users.

We as a society have to learn from our initial mistakes in regulating the internet and the social media world and understand that in relation to the cyber world a self regulatory model does not work when one combines the power of data with the avaricious nature of Big Tech and the potential for vast profits to be made.

We cannot let the metaverse descend into yet another unpredictable and volatile cyber Wild West show which we will then take years to attempt to regulate.

The key for policy makers operating in this field is to control the narrative from the outset and in order to facilitate that lawyers must play their part and be pro-active and innovative in their approach and advice in order to ensure that the rules and laws of the metaverse are not fixed by and for the benefit of a few Big Tech companies that intend to create, develop, own and seek to run the metaverse.

The first and fundamental issue (and which all other issues inextricably flow from) that is going to have to be addressed and legislated for is whether the rule of law as we understand it will actually apply to the metaverse or whether it’s envisaged that normal rules, laws and regulations won’t exist thus adding to its attractiveness to people wishing to operate, experience or virtually live in an augmented reality.

The only rules that could and would apply in this ‘off grid’ world would be the terms and conditions set by the private actors who own the virtual world – a world governed solely by a social contract designed and created to financially benefit predominantly one of the parties is surely to fail and lead inevitably to chaos and disorder.

The answer therefore to that primary and fundamental concern which surrounds the metaverse is that governments will have to act and do so quickly in order to ensure that what goes on in the metaverse is governed by statute and existing legal constructs in order to prevent the risk that the metaverse develops into a ‘state within a state’ where criminality is rife (whether through fraud, money laundering, exploitation or sexual abuse), the emotional, psychologically and financial abuse of its users becomes endemic and to ensure that our existing democratic norms in the real world are not undermined by acts committed in a parallel and unregulated augmented reality. We have all become aware in recent years of the damage of disinformation in elections and referendums from private and state actors attempting to de-stabilise the democratic process.

In order to protect individual rights and the rule of law both in democratic terms but also in relation traditional legal constructs such as  criminal, contractual and tortious obligations, governments both on an individual level and collectively, whether through trade blocs or other supra national organisations, need to develop a unified legislative and judicial approach to ensure effective regulation of the metaverse from the outset.

The augmented reality that will undoubtedly develop (without intervention) and evolve is a cyber world without traditional borders, legal norms or constructs of a civilised society and thus a cross jurisdictional approach by lawmakers is essential to ensure that the development and operation of the metaverse does not damage and undermine the real world and its citizens.

Governments cannot simply dismiss the metaverse as being a place where people can game or live out their fantasies through their self created avatars, it will become if left unchecked a world where anything goes –  good and bad – and the risk of damage being inflicted upon individuals, democratic and legal norms and the traditional nation state cannot be underestimated. It is time for governments to act to ensure that an augmented reality owned and designed by a few does not replace the world which belongs to all.