Thomson Reuters Foundation

From virtual goods to AI-powered avatars that can be hired out by companies, a fast-growing digital world is pushing ownership and privacy rights into unchartered territory.

Facebook's recent announcement that it is investing heavily in the so-called metaverse - a virtual environment where people can meet, play and collaborate - is fueling debate about how to protect basic rights as more and more activities move online.

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Gaming computers await players of Boderlands 3 by 2K at E3, the annual video games expo experience the latest in gaming software and hardware in Los Angeles, California, US, on 12th June, 2019. PICTURE: Reuters/Mike Blake.

"What Facebook and, in all fairness, all companies want is to keep [people] on the platform for as long as possible so they can learn things about you," said Sandra Wachter, an associate professor at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford.

"[The metaverse] will just exacerbate problems that we already have," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"[The metaverse] will just exacerbate problems that we already have."

- Sandra Wachter, an associate professor at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford.

Facebook and its parent company Meta unveiled plans last month to create 10,000 jobs to build the metaverse, saying the plan involved spending $US50 million to ensure the virtual world included privacy, diversity and user safety guarantees.

The term "metaverse" has been used to describe an array of shared spaces accessed via the internet – from fully-immersive virtual reality spaces to augmented reality accessed through devices such as smart glasses.

Liri, a 23-year-old Israeli student, said she was intrigued when she heard that she could sell the rights to her image to a Tel Aviv-based company using artificial intelligence technology to create digital characters, or avatars.

The characters can be "hired out" to companies and programmed to voice scripts.

"It is definitely a bit strange to think that my face can appear in videos or ads for different companies," Liri, who was identified only by her first name, said in a statement provided through AI avatar company Hour One.

"But it's also very exciting," she was quoted as saying.



"Different worlds"
The emerging virtual economy already includes some 2.5 billion people and generates billions of dollars each year, according to a report by market research company L'Atelier.

That includes virtual accessories such as digital outfits and hairstyles for avatars to cutting-edge AI-chatbot tech and social media lifestyle bloggers who make their living through advertising revenue linked to the clicks they generate.

"We definitely see the world becoming more virtual, [we are] increasingly going to live in a metaverse," said Natalie Monbiot, head of strategy at Hour One.

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A woman surfs the web at an Internet cafe in Bangkok on 29th September, 2010. PICTURE: Reuters/Sukree Sukplang/File photo.

Fredrik Hellberg, co-founder of digital architecture studio Space Popular, said virtual reality spaces can "bring people close together" even when they are physically distant.

But he added that potential pitfalls of the metaverse include privacy risks to users and the energy cost of processing ever larger amounts of data.

"That is why the public needs to be a part of the conversation and have a say...otherwise tech becomes a part of your life without you ever having made that choice," he said.

Workplaces are also grappling with questions over the opportunities and risks posed by the metaverse, said Khurshid Anis, a New York-based human resource consultant.

"We will have to rewrite entire contracts and employment policies ground up, rather than trying to edit the existing rules, because these are totally different worlds," she said.

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Digital fakes?
The rise of the metaverse also presents a tangle of legal and regulatory issues to be resolved, such as whether people should be informed when they are dealing with a bot and which agencies should be in charge of regulating virtual spaces.

Amid an explosion in crypto art and other virtual assets sold through NFT tokens, there are questions about ownership rights, too.

NFTs have been pitched as readily tradeable assets backed up by permanent proof of ownership on blockchain digital records.

But buyers may be getting less than they realise, said Sophie Goossens, a partner at Reed Smith law firm who specialises in media and technology.

In most cases, an NFT does not sign over full intellectual property rights to a digital creation but instead offers some form of service agreement or licence to use it – less than the ownership rights over an equivalent physical object, she said.

It is also unclear whether digital creations generated using AI should be given the same ownership rights as those made by humans, she said, as companies look to create entire proprietary virtual worlds to harness for profit.

"You will be on borrowed land all the time," she said of the metaverse.

"If you can generate using AI a whole virtual environment, should that belong to everyone?...Is there going to be such a thing as public domain left in the metaverse?"

Privacy questions
However, some of the thorniest issues around the metaverse revolve around users' personal data and privacy rights.

Putting more of ourselves into digital worlds will offer a wealth of new data that can be captured, recorded and sold.

Working out which country's laws apply in digital spaces could be challenging, and managing data consents could quickly become unwieldy as users move through complex worlds bringing together multiple organisations, said lawyers at Reed Smith.

Data can also be combined and analysed to infer and sell on personal details that users never agreed to share – from their sexuality to their politics or health status, Wachter added.

"Your data is an extension of your personality, of your soul, of who you really are," she said.

Wachter said that while Europe's General Data Protection Regulation recognises data rights - with Europe's huge market meaning it effectively acts as a global standard, it is not clear whether the law extends to such "inferred" data.

She urged courts and lawmakers to ensure inferred data is protected, calling for regulators to put limits on how far companies interpret users' data for commercial ends - something many people are unaware of.

"They think it's a convenient thing that they, for free, get the ability to talk to their friends and families," she said.

"Data collection just runs in the background. And you don't actually know that you're revealing your diary to the whole world."