Late last year, Meta/Facebook announced the arrival of the Metaverse: the massive, immersive, shared, virtual reality. It could be the next evolution of entertainment, a new internet — or an enormous, very loud distraction.
Whichever it turns out to be, Meta contends that user privacy will be respected from the start.
The idea of Meta stewarding a virtual reality revolution — that claims to be privacy-centric — might leave a ringing in your ears. As CPO Magazine’s Scott Ikeda writes “it is quite reasonable to suspect that Facebook sees this as the next frontier of data harvesting, rather than the next frontier of work and leisure activities.”
It has become nearly impossible to think about the company without immediately recalling the countless PR disasters involving accidental, or deliberate, breaches of user data and/or ethics — the Cambridge Analytica scandal being one blinding example.
When your company’s reputation is so bad that you need to change its name, you’ve got problems…
Understanding Meta’s fanatical head-first dive into promoting the Metaverse, of course, requires some scrutiny of the company’s finances. Apple’s recently-acquired, diehard privacy stance has led to headaches and financial brakes for Mr Zuckerberg’s advertising machine.
The privacy-obsessed App/Play Stores have become quite the thorn in his side.
“Apple’s changes […] are not only negatively affecting our business, but millions of small businesses in what is already a difficult time for them in the economy,” Mark Zuckerberg explained during an investor call to discuss Facebook’s unfortunate 3rd quarter financial results for 2021. Rumour has it, moments later a tiny violin was unpacked and began screeching in the background.
To be fair to Zuckerberg, the seismic shift in the market did ultimately win his company an unwelcome crown: largest one-day stock drop in history. Meta lost $251 billion in market value in 24 hours in early February.
Kicking the habit
Given Meta’s clearly complicated relationship with privacy, readers might be wondering how the company plans to inject this feature into the bedrock of its Metaverse.
Short answer: it probably doesn’t.
In fact, getting in first and leading the discussion from the start is probably the best way of ensuring that unwanted privacy and data controls do not take root. Why lobby from the outside, after all?
Commentators have been emphatic on this point. The opportunities to harvest data from users will only multiply in a digital, immersive environment that maps your gestures and tracks eye movement.
When he was armed with just a Like Button, he had us worried.
“This is now all about biometrically inferred data,” explains Kavya Pearlman, founder of the XR Safety Initiative, a non-profit that advocates for ethical development of immersive technologies.
“Eye-tracking, gait-tracking the way you move, the way you walk,” Pearlman contends, all of this analysis can infer a lot of information about you. She believes data privacy laws need to be updated because they are inadequate.
The regulation conundrum
Naturally, when new technologies arrive, regulation can only be reactive — and therefore, it lags. The reason some people are concerned though, is that society is still wrestling with the pandoras box of social media 1.0.
Clearly, with any version of the Metaverse coming around the corner, “regulators will have their hands full,” argues Allan Buxton, Director of Forensics at Secure Data Recovery Services.
“The EU has been the most aggressive in enforcing any limits to Big Data’s skirting of laws or even their own terms and conditions, yet no fine appears to curb their behaviour,” Buxton observes.
It will be interesting to see if the GDPR-fuelled privacy rift forming across the Atlantic can be bridged by any incarnation of the Metaverse. But it is important to stress that, for now at least, this mania is little more than a lucrative-sounding idea in Zuckerberg’s head. What we can really expect is anyone’s guess.