Across the metaverse: The return of the SCL Policy Forum

December 15, 2022

It was back to the future last week with the relaunch of the SCL Policy Forum in the magnificent Octagon room at Queen Mary University. The Policy Forum has over the years provided a space for high level debate on the future of techlaw and this year’s instalment preserved that heritage.

Heritage may be the wrong word to associate with the event though as the topic of the day was the metaverse and all that means (or not). The afternoon’s series of panel sessions ruminated on four burgeoning areas of metaverse activity that will test out current legal and regulatory frameworks: privacy, IP, harm and work. Given the nature of the topic more questions were raised than answers given.

Before we got to the panel sessions, Professor Greg Slabaugh and Barry Scannell set the scene with some introductory thoughts. Both of them picked up on a theme that I must admit had passed me by so far: the metaverse must be persistent. Barry explained what that statement means in a nicely colloquial way; ‘if I break a window in the metaverse it should still be broken when I return’. Both were also keen to stress that the metaverse is ill-defined. Professor Salbaugh used the term 3D internet while Barry was sniffy about the need for the immersive experience. He thinks that augmented reality will be the key to mass adoption of this 3D world.

David Satola led the way in the first panel session, based around the notion of privacy, and made some perceptive remarks on the maintenance of the rule of law. Three points about how the metaverse is likely to stress test the GDPR caught my ear: how does an avatar give consent? Is the metaverse antiethical to the principle of data minimisation? What becomes of the right to be forgotten when persistence (that word) is key? Mauricio Figueroa amplified on that last point and posed questions about the data of the dead: should it be stored, deleted, memorialised or exploited? Fernando Barrio also pondered the status of our gestures in this tracked new world; if I wave my hand in a particular way, is that part of my data ID?

Asked by the moderator whether selling data rights might be a route to digital privacy in the metaverse, all three panellists were dubious, with David commenting that personal data is rights based and you cannot alienate your biometrics.

The session on IP brought the issues of jurisdiction and interoperability to the fore. Michaela MacDonald was of the view that we will never have a single metaverse, but will have a multiverse instead because of the cultural differences that abound (as she pointed out, increasingly we do not have a shared internet). She also highlighted how brands will have a hard time protecting their rights as who cares if that NFT for a Gucci bag is fake. Andres Guadamuz emphasised the jurisdictional problems with the stance that ‘if it’s not on your server, it’s not your property’ while Leandro Toscano catalogued how WIPO is already using ADR in esports and gaming IP disputes and that a prominent MV – Decentraland – has made ADR part of their terms of service.

We then moved on to the potential for harm, a topical thread given the Online Safety Bill had re-entered Parliament in the same week. Lord Tim Clement-Jones was worried that we will repeat the harmful patterns created by Web 2.0 and even hinted that the metaverse we imagine may not be within the scope of the Bill as it is all about activity not content. Julia Hörnle hopped onto that train of thought with the insight that boxing is not possible on Twitter (well it is but only metaphorically – I’ll leave the question of avatars boxing and the nature of reality to one side). Benson Egwuonwu then mapped out some of the laws we already have at our disposal such as Protection From Harassment, the Communications Act and of course defamation law, though many of these laws did not envisage virtual contact. Lord Clement-Jones was not a fan of such gap analysis and made the point that the Online Safety Bill, though deeply flawed, will at least give us a code of practice that could help to prevent future harms.

The final session looked at work in the widest sense. Rachel Bence brought us back to the relative here and now with a run down of initiatives making use of VR and AR in the world of learning. Using VR to train dentists has been a real hit apparently (especially with prospective patients I imagine) but Professor David Leslie looked at the wider moral hazards. For example, will workers be forced to have an avatar to attend meetings perhaps? And what will be the unremitting sensor based tracking of workers to do to their sense of personal autonomy?

The event was wrapped up in inimitable fashion by Professor Richard Susskind. He relayed his own personal experiences of immersive reality and the powerful effect these new technologies had on him. In that light he welcomed the opportunities to innovate we now have, reminding the audience that we may need to look beyond our current legal concepts as the current state of whatever we call the metaverse is the most primitive version of it we will ever have: things can only get better.

As ever the event was recorded so you can fill in the many, many gaps of this report by logging on and watching here (payment required).

Finally, thanks to all the speakers and contributors for making it such a thought provoking event. In order of appearance they were:

Professor Greg Slabaugh, Director of the Digital Environment Research Institute, DERI, QMUL

Barry Scannell, Consultant at William Fry, Dublin

David Satola, ICT Lead Counsel, The World Bank

Mauricio Figueroa, Lecturer at Universidad Autonoma de Mexico/Newcastle School of Law

Dr Fernando Barrio, Trustee, SCL, Senior Lecturer in Law, SBM QMUL

Dr Michaela MacDonald, Lecturer at the School of Electronic Engineering and Computer Science, QMUL

Dr Andres Guadamuz, Reader in Intellectual Property Law, University of Sussex

Leandro Toscano, Head of the Business Development Unit, World Intellectual Property Organization Arbitration and Mediation Center

Lord Clement-Jones, CBE, Co-Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group on AI

Professor Julia Hörnle, Centre for Commercial Law Studies, Queen Mary University of London

Benson Egwuonwu, Associate, DAC Beachcroft

Rachel Bence, Chief Information Officer, Queen Mary University of London

Maria Mexi, Geneva Graduate Institute

Martin Pino, Professor of Law, FADESA – Faculdade para o Desenvolvimento Sustentável da
Amazônia, Brazil

Professor David Leslie, Director of Ethics and Responsible Innovation Research at The Alan Turing Institute

Professor Richard Susskind OBE, President, Society for Computers and Law

Posted in Miscellaneous