Guidelines for metaverse could hurt industry

Visitors wearing virtual reality headsets at a booth at Metaverse Expo Japan in October. -- Bloomberg

THE South Korean government on Thursday unveiled a set of ethical guidelines for the fast-growing metaverse ecosystem, in a bid to deal with a growing number of problematic issues in virtual space.

The Science and ICT Ministry announced the nonbinding guidelines based on three core values: sincere identity, safe experience and sustainable prosperity. The broad core values are designed to make sure users can develop their identity in a safe and sustainable virtual world.

Under the core values, the ministry also announced eight principles: authenticity, autonomy, reciprocity, respect for privacy, fairness, personal information protection, inclusiveness, and responsibility for the future.

Experts predicted the value of the country’s metaverse market will reach 400 trillion won (RM1.33tril) by 2025, up from 170 trillion won last year. But the frenetic growth of the virtual platforms – where people can navigate a new web of convergence services integrated with the real world – is generating a number of problems such as offensive user behaviours, sexual harassment and the growth of indecent content that minors are exposed to.

A recent study by the Korea Information Society Development Institute showed that among metaverse users, the proportion of those who have experienced offensive words or actions reached 40%, and more than 25% of respondents said they were affected by sexual harassment via virtual avatars.

Various streaming platforms are also facing such issues as more people interact with each other on new platforms where guidelines are relatively loose and where imposing penalties for real-time actions between virtual characters is difficult.

Moreover, the number of VTubers – streamers who deliver content via virtual avatars armed with real-time motion capture software – is on the rise on YouTube and other streamlining platforms such as Twitch. The trend heralds a growth of new services that lack proper guidelines or regulations regarding digital fraud, sex crimes and privacy theft.

Reactions to the ministry’s guidelines appear mixed. Those who favour government-led guidelines say that the metaverse industry has long lacked a proper safety net. The guidelines will offer much-needed general direction for platform developers.

Some critics, however, view the guidelines, though not legally binding, as the beginning of state regulation. Given that the government has enormous influence on almost all sectors in the economy, local metaverse platform operators will find it hard to ignore the guidelines.

It is not the first time that government’s guidelines posed a regulatory stumbling block for service operators. When the country began to build up Internet services, the government announced a set of ethical guidelines that resulted in regulatory barriers for those who wanted to kick off new Internet services.

As the local metaverse market is still in a fledgling stage, the government is likely to introduce new guidelines and revisions to related laws that could catch metaverse firms off guard with burdensome regulations, critics say.

There is little doubt the metaverse is a new virtual frontier with potentially great growth momentum across various businesses.

But the metaverse could turn into a wasteful field where digital crimes and abuse proliferate if proper rules are not enforced. To strike a balance and nurture the new industry, the government should fully reflect opinions of metaverse platform operators and users before rolling out new regulations. – The Korea Herald/Asia News Network

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