What lawyers need to know about the metaverse

In the last few weeks, the metaverse has been in the news headlines on a nearly daily basis. Companies are investing billions in it and are looking to hire thousands of people to build it. In this article, we look at what lawyers need to know about the metaverse. It addresses the following questions: what is the metaverse, what can the metaverse be used for, what concerns have been raised about the metaverse, and how is the metaverse relevant for lawyers?

What is the metaverse?

Rather than starting off with an attempt at definition, it may be useful to first quickly go over the history of the idea or concept. The idea for the metaverse is the result of several technological evolutions that are converging. On the one hand, you have computer games that have created entire virtual online worlds that are becoming more and more life-like, and where people have avatars representing them to interact with others and the virtual environment. Another aspect is the increasing use of virtual reality and augmented reality tools in real life for different purposes like training, education, etc. Think, e.g., of a surgeon or medical students practicing a medical procedure. The pandemic has also created new needs for virtual meetings and conferences and has sped up the process of courts going online. All of these tools rely on the Internet. So, the vision rose to enhance the internet in a way that all these technologies could be combined in one parallel virtual / augmented online world where we can live, work, learn, relax, play, socialize, etc.

There is no commonly accepted definition for the metaverse yet. (There even are alternative names for it like, e.g., the omniverse). The Wikipedia, e.g., gives the following definition: “The metaverse (a portmanteau of “meta-” and “universe” or “Universe” and “Meta”) is the hypothesized next iteration of the internet, supporting decentralized, persistent online 3-D virtual environments.” This Wikipedia definition, however, is limited in its scope. These are some of the other aspects that leaders in the field are using to describe it: “a virtual world connecting all sorts of digital environments”, with “social human interaction at its core”; “a vision for a new place to interact with other humans and bots to play games, conduct business, socialize and shop”; “a fully immersive, partially real life, partially digital experience that runs in parallel with the physical world”; “a vast and immersive digital world that is inexorably enmeshed with our physical world”.

This new online world would, just like the Internet, always be on and accessible. At present, accessing such world requires the usage of virtual reality sets or augmented reality glasses, as well as smartphones, PCs, or game consoles. For the metaverse to become a success, investors and developers realise that they must make it more easily accessible, and that interoperability between metaverse applications is essential.

What can the metaverse be used for? Examples of current and future applications.

The early stages of the metaverse already exist. There are, e.g., well-defined use cases within the video game, business, education, retail, and real-estate sectors.

We already gave the examples of games that are being played in entire online worlds, and where millions of players can simultaneously interact with each other and the environment.

Anybody who worked from home during the pandemic undoubtedly is familiar with virtual business meetings. Many also became familiar with online training.

The same goes for education where classes were suddenly taught online instead of in class rooms or auditoria. In some cases, students can use virtual reality headset to learn to manipulate 3D virtual objects, etc.

There are virtual shops that you can walk around in to choose what you want to buy. Similarly, people looking to buy a house can take a virtual tour to determine whether it is worth visiting the actual house. Developers use 3D models of the projects they want to build and put them online for potential buyers and investors.

There already are early metaverse applications for sports and entertainment and for healthcare. During the pandemic there were live concerts that could be attended virtually, where the musicians physically were in different locations, all playing together.

All of this already exists and would be enhanced further. In the future metaverse, people and companies would have their virtual offices. The online shopping experience would dramatically change, too, where virtual shops become far more lifelike. You could have your avatar customised to match the way you look at present and, e.g., try on clothes in the virtual shop before ordering them.

Movies could become 3D environments where you can look around and have a 360-degree view of what is going on. Family reunions and gatherings could take place in virtual environments so those who cannot physically be present, can still attend.

The possibilities look endless.

What concerns have been raised about the metaverse?

While many of these evolutions are thing people can get excited about, there also are plenty of reasons for concerns. Here are a few.

Privacy: big tech companies like Google and Facebook already have a bad reputation when it comes to all the data they gather. Many privacy advocates rightfully point out that the situation could get far worse in the metaverse, especially if it is being run by the same or just a few companies.

There is a cluster of interlinked concerns that has to do with the spread of misinformation, alienation from real life through confirmation bias, and the resulting polarization of society. What are we talking about? In recent years, we have witnessed how social media have been abused to spread misinformation, either intentionally or unintentionally. There already is a problem where the algorithms used in social media are designed to provide you with the information you are interested in, which strengthens the phenomenon of confirmation bias. The algorithm does not care whether what it shows you is true; it is interested in showing you want you want to read. If you hold beliefs that are not true, the algorithms will show you information that confirms those beliefs. In other words, the metaverse may further distort users’ perceptions of reality with biased content to keep them engaged. This can lead to an alienation from what is real, and further contributes to an ongoing polarization of society.

Another problem has to do with online addiction. There have been many well-documented cases where people develop online addictions. With a metaverse that becomes more lifelike and more all-encompassing, an increase in addictions is anticipated.

Another set of concerns has legal implications. Who is in control of the metaverse? Who makes the rules and what rules apply? How are laws applied in virtual worlds? Can insults or threats in a virtual environment have real life repercussions? What if the threats are about the avatars, like somebody threatening to disfigure or destroy your avatar, or somebody replacing your avatar with a less desirable one? There also are concerns about monopolies or oligarchies where some tech companies rule and control everything. Many lawmakers already have expressed concerns about the power big tech companies currently have. In the metaverse, that could get worse. What we are witnessing now are the early stages of a battle over who will control the metaverse.

There are criticisms that the metaverse companies are trying to lure in investors with what is at present merely a purely speculative, and over-hyped concept based on existing technology. They are accused of misrepresenting the largest limitation for wide-scale adoption of the metaverse, which comes from technological limitations with current devices and sensors needed to interact with real-time virtual environments.

And undoubtedly, the metaverse will introduce whole new sets of problems, which will raise new ethical and legal questions. There already is a company that sells tailor-made human digital servants. What about digital slavery and prostitution? What about virtual affairs? One problem that is often mentioned is that of currencies: will you be able to use existing ones, or will new ones be created? Will these virtual currencies be usable in the real world (as in, have purchasing power) or will those be limited to specific environments and providers? Many new solutions will have to be found.

How is the metaverse relevant for lawyers?

In a previous article, we talked about the two sides of legal innovation: one side has to do with adopting new technologies for better legal service delivery; the other side has to do with coming up with new legal solutions for new situations. Both aspects apply to the metaverse.

We already mentioned above that there are multiple concerns about the legal aspects of the metaverse. What existing rules can be applied and what new rules are needed? What new solutions do we have to come up with to deal with the abovementioned concerns? Will the metaverse create a whole series of new crimes? All of these are new problems that will need new legal solutions. And hopefully, we will learn from the mistakes that were made with the Internet, where legislation and jurisprudence were lagging far behind in addressing the new problems that arose. If not, the gap between new problems and the needed legal solutions to address them will be even bigger for metaverse.

The other side of the relevance for lawyers is how it will affect the daily operation of law firms. The metaverse with its new technologies will change the way lawyers work. We can expect an increase in and enhancement of virtual offices, where receptionists and paralegals could be bots or avatars of real people. We will see new virtual courtrooms, virtual arbitration, etc. During litigation, experts and lawyers could provide 3D recreations and presentations of their arguments and findings…

In short, the metaverse is expected to open up a whole new world of possibilities, concerns, and issues.