Human Rights in the Metaverse

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly more than 73 years ago. It helps limit the most extreme abuses people may subject one another to – including the enslavement and economic exploitation. This is an important achievement, as the arrival of eXtended Reality (XR) technologies threatens to compromise fundamental human rights and ethics at every corner of the metaverse – not to mention key issues such as privacy infringement and data invasion. One does not need to have the comprehensive technical knowledge of virtual worlds to understand the impact it will have on individuals both inside and outside of Virtual Reality (VR). 

Like any other technology, XR will have many positive impacts on our daily lives. It can be used in various fields, including health, education, social connection and science. But there are a variety of concerns that this article will explore.

But first, Is It Possible For Metaverse To Be A Safe Place?

New developments in XR threaten human autonomy. A Metaverse of any kind does not allow anyone to have the freedom of movement – as manipulating virtual limbs or seeing with virtual eyes is equivalent to free movement in VR. The computerized control of businesses like Meta can deny any freedom of movement. Meta and other metaverse builders are trivializing it by presenting consumer choice as an alternative to autonomy.

Companies with a history of prioritizing profit over consumer safety harvest our personal data, opening the door to unprecedented intrusions into our lives, homes, and minds. The information gathered by XR devices will be used for targeted advertising and new forms of “biometric psychography,” which will allow them to conclude our most intimate desires and inclinations. There is little that users can do to prevent their data from being leaked or monetised by third parties after it has been acquired. Moreover, these devices will also collect vast amounts of data about our homes and private spaces, allowing governments, companies, and law enforcement to gain illegitimate access to our lives which could exacerbate severe intrusions on our privacy.

New developments in XR are also making these virtual worlds feel more immersive. As a result, the Metaverse feels more and more like a real place. Unfortunately, it’s not just the surroundings that feel authentic – the experiences are, too. As a result, emotional reactions in XR settings are more intense and can elicit the same internal nervous system and psychological responses as unfavourable interactions in real life. Being subjected to harassment and abuse on the internet is nothing new, but it is made worse when it occurs in the metaverse.

What Lessons Can We learn from Web2 That Will Mitigate Future Risks?

We’ve learned a lot from the mistakes and successes of the current generation of smart gadgets and social media. We need to apply these lessons to present emergent technologies to ensure that everyone can benefit from XR and the Metaverse without sacrificing fundamental human rights. 

The role of governments around the world requires them to develop personal protocols to assure human rights. They must enact or update data protection legislation limiting data collection and processing to include data generated and collected by XR systems. Responsible, independent authorities must be instituted to enforce data protection laws and protect people’s rights. It’s vital that governments identify and act on the risk that Big Tech companies are investing heavily in the Metaverse to assert dominance and create potential platform monopolies in the next generation of computing. If this happens it will be very bad for the free market, for healthy competition and for new innovations to arise. 

The role of businesses – they should strictly adhere to the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which mandates the companies to uphold human rights in all circumstances. Suppose a company wants to access XR data. If so, there is a strong case that the business should publicly promise to:

  • Follow the necessary legal processes
  • Notify users when permitted by law
  • Publish transparency reports
  • Use encryption (without backdoors)
  • Strive to limit data access to what is necessary, adequate, and proportional.

Companies need to adhere to strict data minimisation and privacy-by-design standards, collecting just what is essential and holding it only as long as necessary. A company’s users should know exactly who has access to their data. We must also support the development of grassroots, rights-respecting technology.

The role of non-government organizations. NGOs need to be involved as the Metaverse expands to ensure ethical and human rights are considered in this new reality. In addition, the Metaverse could offer a space to help, for example, NGOs get their messages across to those who frequent these virtual worlds. Digital rights advocates and activists should start investigating XR technologies right now and make their demands heard by companies and regulators so that their expertise can inform developments and government protections early. XR enthusiasts should educate themselves on the social and human rights implications of the technologies they create and commit to ethical conduct.

A Focus On Human Rights Is Essential

We need human rights standards to be placed at the centre of developments in XR to ensure that our rights are respected and extended in the metaverse. These fundamental rights and freedoms belong to every person in the world, from birth until death – regardless of where you are from, what you believe in, or how you choose to live. They can never be taken away. These rights are an essential milestone in the history of human evolution, and they ought to be protected going ahead in the future. Our XR data should not be used to harm or manipulate us – but rather be for our benefit. We need to make sure that the next generation of computers doesn’t fail in the same way as the last one did. Let’s make the future a place we’d like to be a part of.

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Animesh Jain

Animesh Jain

Animesh Jain is a Senior Manager, Government Relations & Policy at MKAI. He has completed his MA in international security with concentrations in China & East Asia and Diplomacy from Sciences Po, Paris. He has previously worked with organizations including Kubernein Initiative, Tianjin Intertech Corporation, AI Policy Labs, National Skill Development Corporation and Observers Research Foundation in different capacities.


Human Rights in the Metaverse