The head of the United Kingdom’s media regulator, Ofcom, has warned that “metaverse” forays by tech titans such as Meta and Microsoft will be subject to new rules requiring platforms to protect users from online harms.
Speaking at a policy consulting group Global Counsel event in London on Tuesday, Ofcom Chief Executive Melanie Dawes said self-regulation of the metaverse, a hypothetical digital world promoted by Meta and others, would violate U.K. online safety laws.
“I’m not sure I really see that ‘self-regulatory phase,’ to be honest, existing from a U.K. perspective,” Dawes said. “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 is a set of laws aimed at preventing harmful content from being widely distributed on the internet. Firms would be required to have robust and proportionate measures in place to deal with harmful materials such as vaccine disinformation or posts promoting self-harm under the rules.
Violations of the law, if passed, could result in fines of up to 10% of annual global revenues. Senior tech executives may face criminal charges in the future for more severe breaches.
The bill is particularly concerned with child protection, having been drafted in response to the death of Molly Russell, a British teen who committed suicide after being exposed to suicide-related posts on Instagram.
In September, a coroner investigating Russell’s death made the landmark conclusion that “negative effects” of social media contributed to her death.
Dawes made it clear that the metaverse would not be exempt from the new rules. She believes the United Kingdom is “in good stead” to regulate the metaverse because the scope of the Online Safety Bill is broad enough to include platforms and companies that play a role in the metaverse. “We’ll be able to pull it off.”
According to Dawes, the internet has made it easier for “horrific” illegal activities to have a larger impact. She cited Twitch’s live streaming of the Buffalo, New York shootings in May 2022. In a recent report, Ofcom recommended that platforms implement measures such as age verification to limit access to live streaming.
There are “some differences” between the metaverse and “traditional” social media, according to Dawes, such as the immersive nature of VR services and the difficulty in determining what a child is experiencing once they put on a headset.
“You do need moderation to make sure that you manage these things because they’ve happened at such scale,” Dawes said. “I think that things like metaverses are adding intensity into that mix.”
The term “metaverse” has proven difficult to define. It loosely refers to the concept of virtual worlds in which thousands, if not millions, of people can congregate in vast, three-dimensional worlds. It is frequently linked to technologies such as virtual and augmented reality.
According to Global Counsel research presented Monday, consumers are largely unaware of the metaverse, with awareness of the technology lower than that of other technologies such as virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and cryptocurrencies. According to the organization’s survey, only four out of ten people in the United Kingdom know much about the technology beyond its name.
According to Global Counsel, Brits are far more skeptical of the metaverse than their French and American counterparts. In the United Kingdom, attitudes toward technology are mostly negative, with a net favorability score of minus 3%. According to Global Counsel, consumers in France and the United States were more favorable to the metaverse.
Meta, formerly Facebook, is betting big on its vision of a metaverse where users can socialize and even work. The company released its new Meta Quest Pro headset this week, which retails for $1,500 and improves on its predecessor, the Meta Quest 2. However, such investments are having a significant impact on the company’s bottom line, contributing to a $15 billion loss since the beginning of last year.
Microsoft is also aggressively investing in its own metaverse creation with its augmented reality HoloLens headsets, and has proposed a $69 billion acquisition of Activision Blizzard, the video game company behind Call of Duty.
Gaming regulation, in particular, will need to be more “active” to ensure safety is built in from the start, according to Dawes, who adds that video games are “particularly appealing to children.”
Following the resignation of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the subsequent appointment of Liz Truss as UK leader, the Online Safety Bill had been stalled. After Truss’ brief tenure ended, regulators are hopeful that the bill will be introduced in Parliament soon under new Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Michelle Donelan, Sunak’s choice for digital minister, had committed to strengthening the law’s child protection aspects under Truss.
The bill is highly contentious in its current form. The bill’s wording, which targets “legal but harmful” content, has sparked outrage among some digital rights activists, who fear it will limit free expression online.
“The idea that platforms can opt people out of such things is nonsense,” Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, an organization that campaigns for internet freedoms, said.
(Adapted from CNBC.com)
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