Could the metaverse be more trustworthy than our current internet?

The metaverse has the potential to be a more trustworthy and inclusive space than the current internet, but it will require careful governance.

The metaverse has the potential to be a more trustworthy and inclusive space than the current internet, but it will require careful governance. Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cathy Li
Head, AI, Data and Metaverse; Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum
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  • Despite all the promises offered by the internet and new immersive environments, there has been a huge erosion of trust related to issues such as data privacy and online safety.
  • Improved global governance, including on issues such as user data sharing, could help rebuild that lost trust.
  • By considering societal, ethical and human factors from the outset, we can ensure that new immersive technologies enhance our lives and align with our shared values.

The internet stands as one of the most remarkable achievements in the field of communication and information networks. It is considered the largest and most extensive system of its kind ever created by humans, offering boundless capabilities. The internet allows users to gain unparalleled access to information, fosters robust community connectivity, and creates tremendous economic opportunities.

However, the current internet landscape – encompassing its implementation, usage and management – has experienced significant erosion of trust. Astonishingly, only 60% of users across 20 countries express confidence in the internet’s reliability, reflecting widespread global mistrust.

These disconcerting findings make it increasingly necessary to explore whether a promising path exists for the internet to address crucial aspects such as privacy, safety and social consequences, thereby paving the way for a future that is both immersive and secure.

Improved global governance could be one way of achieving that. This entails establishing clear rules that ensure user data sharing and interactions are beneficial and aligned with their expectations and values. Users seek assurance that they will not encounter harm and have better control over their personal data. Concerns surrounding surveillance, privacy, targeted advertising, and identity theft dominate their thoughts.

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Moreover, users demand safety – physical, emotional and psychological – in online spaces. They aspire to feel included and valued within the digital realm. As the internet evolves, it will provide experiences that deeply engage individuals, intensifying this need for a secure and fulfilling online environment.

Creating a prosperous online economy

The Defining and Building the Metaverse initiative by the World Economic Forum is dedicated to collaborating with diverse stakeholders to address these significant risks associated with future immersive environments, while fostering a prosperous online economy.

The key to achieving this lies in developers, business leaders and policy-makers’ decisions. By prioritizing specific aspects, we can create immersive environments that enhance in-person social interactions rather than replacing them. Placing importance on privacy and safety is crucial, as it enables the development of technologies that effectively safeguard these concerns.

To establish a more user-centric approach to immersive environments, commercial entities must exercise restraint and discipline, even in the face of competing business priorities. Presently, many developers prioritize their investors’ bottom line, relegating user experience to secondary consideration at best. This incentive structure needs to be transformed. Developers should be incentivized to prioritize the people who will use their technology and be impacted by its use.

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Building a thriving economy that prioritizes human needs is entirely feasible. It is essential to recognize that pushing harmful practices onto consumers may yield short-term profits but will ultimately lead to the downfall of a business in the long run. Therefore, developers and businesses must understand that prioritizing user well-being and satisfaction is not only ethically responsible but also a more sustainable approach to long-term success.

In certain situations, businesses will need to assess complex and nuanced trade-offs that demand thorough analysis and careful consideration. For instance, they will have to determine the type of personally identifiable data in the metaverse and evaluate its safety when transmitted from devices to the cloud. They will also need to ensure the security of other companies’ device’s to enable interoperability and portability. Additionally, there will be challenges related to protecting children from inappropriate spaces without relying on age-related data collection.

A remarkable opportunity

Enhanced governance in the realm of immersive technologies and understanding how these technologies impact society are crucial focal points for the Forum and are addressed by the recently launched reports on Privacy and Security and Social Implications of the Metaverse. It is essential for individuals to recognize the significance of this aspect and develop a clear understanding of what constitutes responsible governance.

We currently have a remarkable opportunity to establish responsible technologies for immersive experiences. Seizing this golden moment is imperative before these technologies become more widely adopted. Retrofitting security, safety, privacy protection and other essential components at a later stage could be excessively costly and impractical. By prioritizing governance now, we can lay a solid foundation that ensures the responsible and sustainable development of immersive technologies in the future.

Similar to the environmental review processes undertaken before large-scale construction projects or the human subjects review panels for medical and psychological studies, it is crucial to establish a human and social review framework for assessing the impacts of new immersive technologies on human well-being, health, privacy and societal interactions.

Conducting such assessments in advance would allow us to gain invaluable insights into the potential risks associated with these technologies. This knowledge would empower us to design innovative solutions that align with our humanity and values rather than attempting to circumvent or suppress them.

Incorporating a human and social review process would provide us with a comprehensive understanding of the implications of emerging technologies. It would allow us to harness the brilliance and dedication of individuals working in this field. Equipped with a full picture of the ramifications of their work, these talented innovators could develop technologies in a way that minimizes potential regrets in the future.

By considering societal, ethical and human factors from the outset, we can ensure that new immersive technologies enhance our lives and align with our shared values. This would help build a future where innovation and responsibility go hand in hand.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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