This opinion piece originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.
Wendy H. Wong is a professor of political science, the Canada research chair in global governance and civil society and the research lead of the Schwartz Reisman Institute for Technology and Society at the University of Toronto.
Jamie Duncan is a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies and a Junior Fellow at Massey College.
Mark Zuckerberg wants Facebook to be part of your metaverse. The company may be down after the recent revelations of whistle-blower Frances Haugen, but it is certainly not out. Mr. Zuckerberg recently announced Facebook will be assuming a new corporate identity known as Meta, and investing in the “metaverse” to the tune of US$10-billion.
The metaverse, according to Mr. Zuckerberg, is “an embodied internet that you’re inside of rather than just looking at.” More specifically – yet still not very specific – the metaverse is a series of 3D virtual worlds that tech companies hope we will increasingly play and work within. Think of immersive, open-world gaming experiences like Minecraft or Roblox, but more expansive. If the hype about the metaverse is to be believed, we will soon be able to live nearly parallel lives in virtual reality: going shopping, attending concerts and work meetings, and interacting with people from all over the world.
Facebook has long sought to embed itself in every aspect of our lives, from archiving family photos to selling used sofas. Last month’s Facebook blackout showed that, for many people, Facebook provides essential infrastructure for their livelihoods and connecting with family and friends. For many in the Global South, Facebook is their entire experience of the internet. However, despite its outsized power, the company has repeatedly failed to protect human rights. Well-known examples include facilitating ethnic and religious violence in Myanmar and India. Some human rights critics suggest Facebook’s whole business model is a threat to human rights.
We should be wary of Mr. Zuckerberg’s vision because of what we’ve learned from the Facebook Papers. These leaked documents reveal how the company has been willing to put people in harm’s way in the interest of its own bottom line. The company’s rebrand as “Meta” is an attempt to deepen already considerable influence over our lives. The metaverse will be filled with even more data about people.
We should take a lesson from how stymied we already are in regulating social media to avoid repeating these mistakes with the metaverse. Lawmakers across the globe have been playing catch-up trying to contain the ill-effects of social media, from hate speech to election manipulation. How did this happen? We failed to have a meaningful policy conversation about social media before it became central to many of our lives. We didn’t take the potential harms seriously. We mostly assumed human rights would easily “port” from analog to digital.
We need to take a different approach with the metaverse. Now is the time to centre human rights in policy making regarding online platforms. This requires a holistic approach based in foresight, rather than invoking human rights in piecemeal responses to damages that have already been done. The metaverse is poised to further change life as we know it, and a renewed commitment to human rights needs to define the guardrails.
Our system of global human rights is a relatively recent innovation itself: It was only firmly established after the Second World War. In 1948, the signatory states of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were staring down a brave new world of their making – one that had been permanently changed by the Holocaust, nuclear bombs and the establishment of the United Nations and Bretton Woods global financial system. These states assented to a preamble and 30 articles that became the backbone of the current human rights framework that we know today. Contemporary human rights are built on the ideals of human autonomy, dignity, equality and community. The problem is that these universal rights were created in an analog context. The authors were worried about the experiences of the material world before the idea of a privately owned parallel universe was anything but science fiction.
How has the digital world changed us? For one, our lives are now governed by data-intensive technologies run by profit-hungry firms. Most of what we do these days is tracked by surveillance technologies. We have nonetheless benefitted from these technologies and stand to benefit similarly from the metaverse. But when people like Mr. Zuckerberg espouse their commitment to values like autonomy and community, they seem to be specifically endorsing the narrow forms of “freedom” and “connectivity” that are profitable, rather than the broader conceptions of these terms that humanity requires to truly flourish.
As evidenced by Facebook’s past behaviour, commitments to human rights among the company’s leadership are more about rhetoric than reality. Mr. Zuckerberg proclaims that “norm-setting and new types of governance” will be necessary for the metaverse. His vision to date is even further removed from state-led regulation than existing social-media platforms, relying on “crypto” and interoperable private standards. The norms he refers to are guided by market logic, rather than human rights.
This is why lawmakers must commit to protecting – and, ideally, enhancing – human autonomy, dignity, equality and community in the metaverse, if it is to become a part of our reality. Companies and states need to be held accountable to the core values of human rights and extend the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to a world that isn’t bound by territoriality. The metaverse won’t be bound by physical borders and neither should our rights.
Governments and legislators waited to see what would happen with social media. We shouldn’t repeat this mistake with the metaverse. Nobody can entirely predict what will happen with new technologies, but we can do a much better job adapting to them by learning from the lessons of the recent past. Regulating emerging technologies can feel like designing a plane while flying it. This is no easy feat, but a human rights-based framework offers a set of values that a large proportion of states, and an even larger share of the world’s population, can get behind.