Earlier this year when a new FAA regulation deadline impacted my work as a Part 107 Drone Pilot, I reached out directly to the FAA with my grievances. To my surprise, they responded rather quickly, and not only that, within a few days I was able to meet with a representative in person. I could feel my tax dollars at work and it was amazing.
The problem was, I couldn’t think of an equivalent government agency for “the Metaverse”. Does one exist? If so, is there someone running a desk at the FTC, or maybe the cybercrimes unit of the FBI, or maybe there’s somebody at the FCC? And can anyone even agree on what the Metaverse is?
So as I sifted through a sea of fairly weak hits trying to answer this question and finding no such person, a July 2023 commentary “AI Makes Rules for the Metaverse Even More Important”, caught my attention. The title surprised me in two ways: First, it mentioned the Metaverse in mid-2023 with zero sarcasm. Second, it acknowledged that an AI-enabled Metaverse is an even more dangerous one. Instead of backing up slowly, I embarked on a history lesson of network communications that reached back, yes, all the way to Johannes Gutenberg and the origins of the moveable-type printing press in 15th-century Germany.
The article turned out to be an extraordinary almost 10,000-word discussion by author Tom Wheeler, Visiting Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution and the Center for Technology Innovation. Wheeler is well known in the field of tech governance, and previously worked for the FCC, having most recently served as its Chairman under the Obama administration from 2013-2017. It turns out the Metaverse has a great champion for making it safer and smarter to use, and he’s an industry veteran with over forty years of experience working in cable, telecommunications, and governance.
By the end of the reading, I could see the missing pieces pretty clearly. Platform companies have been left to self-regulate, but the incentives to do so are not only misaligned but the urgency for it gets downplayed. We are all too familiar with business models that provide free services in exchange for a long tail of private information being claimed by corporations as their assets. It was also clear that neither the FCC nor the FTC have true responsibility for the internet, and so by the nature of its extension as a digital medium, the Metaverse is exclusively governed by neither. Furthermore, industry leaders continue to assert that we have all the time in the world to figure it out.
“The crucial difference today is that time is on our side. It may not always feel like it when so many different companies are talking up these technologies and announcing new products and initiatives. But these innovations aren’t going to happen overnight. We’re in the early stages of this journey. Many of these products will only be fully realized in 10–15 years, if not longer.” – Nick Clegg, President of Global Affairs, Meta (May 2022)
Wheeler, wise from decades of work as the world digitized, and an ardent historian, believes precisely the opposite.
“The problems created by today’s digital platforms were, for the most part, unanticipated. We cannot claim such innocence about the metaverse and artificial intelligence”. Tom Wheeler, Techlash
Wheeler, I also learned, was days away from the arrival of his fourth book Techlash: Who Makes the Rules in the Digital Gilded Age? In Techlash, Wheeler spends several chapters drawing the historical connections between what is happening today, and the big tech battles of the past, with a few years of competition followed by decades of monopolistic business practices that exploit the consumer. The clear message is that contrary to what big tech companies want you to believe, we don’t have time. The time to act is now so that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. Taking it a step further, he believes we need agile oversight to replace rigid industrial-era management and policymaking with dynamic, and likely AI-aided management that will match the velocity of innovation. Without it, guardrails won’t come fast enough as tech will be left to regulate from within. The book also builds on Wheeler’s 2020 proposal for a new federal expert agency – the Digital Platform Agency (New Digital Realities: New Oversight Solutions in the U.S., Verveer, Kimmelman, Wheeler), to address the public interest challenges of the digital era. In it they proposed not just a new agency, but a new regulatory paradigm.
I am not alone in wanting there to be guardrails for the Metaverse, but we are a niche within a niche.
Those of us who see that need also recognize there must be a marriage between XR and cybersecurity before we see any meaningful regulations. This was made apparent to me during AWE USA 2022 when I chaired the Safety & Security track. While our sessions attracted far fewer attendees, the adjacent ballroom was overflowing – Snap Lens and TikTok creators packed the house – and rightly so, they each have more followers than there are HMD’s in the world. It was relatable. It was cool. The celebrity of a social media star is way more fun than talking about rules just like going to a concert is way cooler than doing your homework, and it always will be. Poorly attended, but arguably far more important for humanity in the long run, the juxtaposition was a pained expression.
The speaker roster for our track included Dr. Louis Rosenberg, CEO and Chief Scientist with Unanimous AI an outspoken academic and thought leader on XR and AI, Kavya Pearlman, CEO and Founder of the XR Safety Initiative, Elvis Chan, Assistant Special Agent in Charge (ASAC) assigned to FBI San Francisco, and Sophia Moshasha, XR Business Strategist with Virtual Reality Marketing among others. Rosenberg’s talk on Regulating the Metaverse should be required viewing for everyone in XR. I also can’t help but vividly recall when ASAC Chan, manager of the FBI San Francisco field office Cyber Branch mentioned quite matter-of-factly “the US government is not going to save us”, and explained that instead, he looks to NGOs and industry to have their finger on the pulse for governance. Wait, what? Did the FBI literally just say don’t look to the US Government to save us? Chan, Elvis Preparedness for Safety in the Metaverse
The pained expression returned.
So instead of trying to solve 21st century problems with 19th century solutions, could a new digitally focused, agile government agency be the answer? Can an agency that keeps pace with corporate evolution have what he calls agile oversight? Will it only succeed if it adopts AI tools to keep up with the pace of innovation in tech? Or, will the money spring of the AI-powered Metaverse gush forth so quickly that no one will ratchet back the faucet even to save humanity? Are we all just shouting at the wind?
While I wasn’t able to reach anyone at a “Digital Platform Agency” to get their opinion, Wheeler was kind enough to grant me an interview. I wanted to ask him what he was thinking about while writing. After reading both Techlash and From Gutenberg to Google, and from our chat, I did feel that there are kindred spirits out there who love innovation as much as I do, but also believe in standards and protections for consumers and that innovation is not stymied by their existence. Most recently, the October 30th White House Executive Order on “Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Artificial Intelligence”, set forth an order to do many of the things that Wheeler hopes will happen in the coming years. The question of whether or not the XR community will engage in a civic duty to play an active role in thoughtfully shaping the future still remains. And if they do, would regulations, rather than hurting us, actually pave the way towards the Metaverse of the future that we all so deeply care about?
AR Insider’s Editor-at-Large Emily Olman is an XR community builder, roving journalist, and CEO & Chief Media Officer of Hopscotch Interactive.