Way back in 2010, The Economist commented that social media company Facebook is starting to resemble a nation-state in terms of its external operations and relationships.
The platform was yet to reach 1 billion users, but a meeting between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and UK’s then Prime Minister, David Cameron, appeared almost like a diplomatic engagement.
Over the years, analysts have repeatedly suggested that the sheer size, population, and influence of Facebook meant that it could define its own rules and govern itself, like an independent territory.
For example, the platform’s ban on the Myanmar military indicated a growing sense of sovereignty.
Now, as Facebook rebrands as Meta and sets its sights on building the metaverse, a similar challenge could apply to its VR offerings. The metaverse is envisioned as a unified virtual world mirroring our own.
But, the boundaries between the real and the virtual could make it extremely complex to govern, even more difficult than it already is to govern and regulate social media.
That’s why “who will govern the metaverse” is such a pertinent question right now, while we are still in the early years of the concept’s actualisation.
The metaverse is defined as a three-dimensional, virtual space where users can interact with their surroundings and each other.
It has three defining properties – interoperability, universality, and a social environment – and is built on three core technologies – XR, blockchain, and artificial intelligence.
A theoretical conceptualisation of the metaverse has been around since the 90s, but it’s only in the last five years that we have seen any practical progress.
Advancements in blockchain, accessible VR, and ready-to-use AI packages meant that companies could start developing their own versions of a metaverse environment.
Remember that these aren’t a true metaverse – without interoperability, these are still standalone applications with one or more virtual worlds contained within them.
Decentraland is an early example, and Sandbox could be called a gaming-only metaverse.
Facebook’s vision, on the other hand, is very different. At his Connect 2021 keynote, Mark Zuckerberg, explained that the company’s metaverse would be an “embodied internet” that’s decentralised and controlled by no singular company.
Decentraland and Sandbox are also decentralised through their blockchain architecture, but they are relatively smaller and more limited in scale.
In contrast, Facebook could build on their existing social media presence of nearly three billion users to create a truly universal and community-driven metaverse ecosystem.
Now, coming to the question of governance, the rules aren’t quite clear.
The metaverse will not be created by one company. It will be built by creators and developers making new experiences and digital items that are interoperable and unlock a massively larger creative economy than the one constrained by today’s platforms and their policies
He goes on to add that Facebook (now Meta) will only act as an accelerator and an enabler.
Yet, the same could be said for Facebook, which relies on user-generated content and external publishers to drive traffic.
There too, experiences are shaped by “creators and developers” but they come under the purview of Facebook’s algorithms and internal workings.
It was due to this lack of clarity around governance that the company recently set up the Oversight Board to examine content policies.
Issues around metaverse governance must be tackled early on to avoid a similar trajectory with the new platform. Fortunately, some public sector and government entities are considering a head start.
As Facebook and other organisations work on their plans for the metaverse, governments around the world are taking notice.
Through early partnerships like the following, it is possible to envision and action a robust government structure that anticipates future needs.
1. Seoul and South Korea
There are a number of metaverse players in South Korea (which is the world’s fourth-largest gaming market) such as Netmarble, Zepeto, ifland, etc. the South Korean government is not only supportive of metaverse innovations, but its Ministry of Science and ICT has also set up a “metaverse alliance” to coordinate the efforts.
500+ companies have already joined, and the city of Seoul has even planned to develop a municipal metaverse.
2. Tencent in China
In a recent quarterly earnings call, Tencent announced that it would welcome the metaverse but adapt it for Chinese laws and regulations. While the Chinese government will support the development of the metaverse, user experience has to be in line with government rules.
China has a strong track record of tech market crackdowns, and in that specific region, it is clear that the metaverse will be centrally governed.
3. The Barbados Metaverse Embassy
Barbados is the first sovereign nation in the world to actually have an embassy in a metaverse location, officially recognising VR spaces as governable entities.
In fact, the Barbadian Government is partnering with a number of metaverse companies like Decentraland, SuperWorld, Somnium Space, and perhaps, eventually Meta to build a well-established presence in the platform’s governance landscape.
These three examples demonstrate that the world takes the need to govern the metaverse seriously. Yet, barring China, there is no clear governance mechanism in place.
Ideally, one should have a global metaverse alliance with not 500 but several thousand members to ensure that the metaverse operates without any governance or regulatory bottlenecks.
The decentralised architecture of the metaverse means that day-to-day operations will look after themselves. This open, non-profit alliance will only intervene via policy-making and for high-level dispute resolution.
Right now, the task at hand is to bring blockchain and cryptocurrency under the ambit of regulatory governance so that we are ready for a metaverse-ian future.
Governments and regions still vary widely in their approach to crypto, which could become a problem as crypto is the core building block for the metaverse’s economy.
It is vital that we first come to a consensus about governing the three core technologies behind the metaverse before building on it to pave the way for future policies.