Dear privacy pros,
I trust you are enjoying the new perspectives our expanded panel of contributors brought to these introductions.
In my last introduction, Facebook completed its rebranding to Meta Platforms. Since then, a whole bevy of other brands and individuals have jumped onto the metaverse bandwagon.
Nike filed several trademark applications, which, together with recently posted job openings for virtual design roles, suggest it intends to “make” and sell branded sneakers and apparel in the virtual world.
Users looking to dress their avatars for even greater “flex” can perhaps look forward to other high-end brands aping in. Way back in May 2021 (or a previous lifetime in internet years), fans of Animal Crossing: New Horizon could already clad their avatars in pieces from Marc Jacob and Valentino. Louis Vuitton has also experimented with a mobile video game featuring branded NFTs — non-fungible tokens for the uninitiated — to celebrate the 200th birthday of its founder.
Closer to home, Singapore singer JJ Lin recently bought three plots of “virtual” estate in the online world of Decentraland for SG$123,000 — a relatively conservative purchase, considering that the most expensive plot sold for about US$2.4 million.
Finally, technology companies exhibiting at the CES 2022 electronics show have also clearly set their sights on entering the space. Consumer electronics manufacturers like LG, Panasonic and even automaker Hyundai have showcased products that provide an interface between our physical world and the blossoming digital realm.
I summarized the above developments to highlight the pace at which adoption is happening, and remind readers that this brave new world will require us to think through a whole new set of privacy issues, which we probably have no way to foresee at this point in time. As an orthogonal example, a female player of the immersive virtual game Population One recently reported that another user in the game sexually assaulted her avatar. Interestingly, the developer of the game had been acquired by Meta, and the female player was wearing the Oculus Quest virtual reality headset from the company.
In fact, similar issues were uncovered during the testing stage of Horizon Worlds, a virtual reality social platform from Meta that probably best exemplifies what Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse would look like. A female employee who beta-tested the product reported that not only had her avatar been groped by a stranger, others in the Plaza (a central gathering place for users of the platform) stood by or even supported the misdemeanor.
Such incidents throw into relief the type of gray-area issues that privacy professionals would likely encounter when the metaverse becomes a reality (irony intended). For example, would such conduct qualify as a crime if no actual physical contact occurred? Would it make a difference if the user was wearing a VR headset or a haptic suit? To what extent does the platform have a responsibility to safeguard users’ interests, particularly if the platform has implemented certain technical measures affording users some protection? Would the user have a right to enforce the social contract represented by the rules or code of conduct imposed by the platform on other users, or is the contract only legally enforceable between the platform and user? To what extent can users rely on their anonymity to get away with potential misbehaviors online?
I fully expect we will see similar thorny issues in the privacy space in the metaverse.
Hopefully, this introduction will give you some food for thought and lead you down the rabbit hole for more research.
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