Despite their claims to limitless boundaries and possibilities, metaverses will have to abide by the rules of the upcoming Online Safety Bill, according to Melanie Dawes, chief executive officer of the United Kingdom media regulator Ofcom.
Speaking at a London event on Tuesday hosted by policy consulting group Global Counsel, Dawes made it clear that self-regulation of the metaverse would not be allowed under U.K. online safety laws, and the platforms would fall under the jurisdiction of the incoming direction, which has proven somewhat controversial.
“I’m not sure I really see that ‘self-regulatory phase,’ to be honest, existing from a U.K. perspective,” said Dawes. “If you’ve got young people in an environment where there’s user-generated content according to the scope of the bill, then that will already be caught by the Online Safety Bill.”
The Online Safety Bill, currently making its way through the House of Commons, was introduced by the U.K. Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS), and in its own words, it “imposes duties of care on providers of regulated user-to-user services and regulated search services and requires OFCOM to issue codes of practice relating to some of those duties.”
In essence, it creates new rules for firms that host user-generated content, requiring them to remove illegal online material and, in the case of platforms frequented by children, “legal but harmful material,” notable examples being self-harming, suicide, and eating disorder-related content.
The bill is particularly concerned with this latter point, as it was in part created in response to the death of Molly Russell, a U.K. teen who took her own life after being exposed to suicide-related posts on Instagram. In September, the findings of an inquest determined that social media content contributed “more than minimally” to her death—a landmark ruling.
Should the bill pass through, as expected, social media platforms, search engines, forums and messaging apps, online games, cloud storage, and numerous pornography sites will all be subject to its rules and guidelines.
Virtual reality (VR) worlds, or metaverses, are not mentioned in the bill. However, in a statement by its authors, they noted that “this landmark bill captures all services where users can interact online – from websites and apps to the metaverse and beyond. Services likely to be accessed by children will need to protect them from harm or face huge fines.”
These fines for non-compliance could potentially reach up to 10% of the annual global revenues of the ‘guilty’ company/platform. Beyond fines, the bill leaves scope for bringing criminal charges against senior tech executives.
Long before Descartes was pondering the nature of reality in the 17th century, ideas about virtual worlds were in circulation. However, the practicalities of how they’re governed are not something lawmakers have had to consider until recently, with the emergence of virtual worlds like the metaverse.
The most notable advocate of this new form of reality is the driving force behind the metaverse, Meta (NASDAQ: META) (formerly Facebook), and the company is investing heavily in its virtual world as the future of digital interaction, to the possible detriment of its profits.
Never off the front pages for long, Meta, who was only last month up before Congress explaining how it’s tracking digital asset scams, has reported a $15 billion loss since the start of 2021, primarily due to metaverse research and development.
With some of the wealthiest companies in the world, Meta and Microsoft included, pouring money into VR and metaverses, it’s no surprise that lawmakers have begun to take the space more seriously.
In her speech, Ofcom CEO Melanie Dawes drew comparisons between VR worlds and more ‘traditional’ social media while acknowledging “some differences” between them. She highlighted the immersive nature of VR services, stating, “I think that things like metaverses are adding intensity into that mix.” ‘Intensity’ is neither good nor bad in and of itself, much depends on context, but a clearer concern for Dawes was the difficulty of knowing what a child is experiencing once they’ve got a headset on and how to make sure it isn’t something harmful.
Whether the metaverse could be more dangerous than traditional social media is, as yet, an untested and unproven theory. What is known is that once virtual reality worlds fall under the ‘protective’ umbrella of the U.K. Online Safety Bill, platforms such as the metaverse will have to fall in line or face the wrath of Ofcom.
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