Who wants to govern the metaverse?

The governance of the ‘metaverse’, underpinned by extended reality (XR) technology, has garnered increasing attention from policymakers, industry, and regulators. Despite highly productive critiques of industrial governance practices and initiatives – such as those focused on responsible innovation and diversity, equity, and inclusion within XR – there has been limited comprehensive examination of XR governance efforts across wider industrial, civil society, and government sectors. To address this gap, we conducted a content analysis of calls for XR governance published between March 2020 and May 2023. The study – published earlier this year – aimed to uncover who is advocating for XR governance, what aspects of XR are being targeted for governance, and the underlying motivations driving these calls for governance.

Who wants to govern XR?

Various stakeholders are actively involved in advancing governance initiatives for XR. Governments and government agencies, including those from regions like North America, Europe, and Australia, are engaged in developing policies and regulations concerning XR. These efforts vary in specificity, with some governments broadly acknowledging the need for timely regulation, while others focus on medium-specific risks such as privacy concerns associated with XR technology. Civil society groups, such as advocacy organizations and NGOs, play a significant role in developing best practices and standards for XR technology. These groups either focus specifically on XR or address wider societal issues like privacy, gender equality, and disability inclusion affected by XR. Industry, particularly firms involved in XR software or hardware production, is a major stakeholder advocating for governance. While some industry players favour self-governance through self-imposed standards and control mechanisms, others call for regulatory oversight. Meta, due to its significant presence in the XR industry, is particularly notable in this regard (in 2021 funding a $50M policy, civil society, and academic outreach initiative focused on developing regulatory guardrails for XR).

What the scope of XR governance?

Our study found that governance initiatives for XR spanned four main domains: privacy; safety, equity, inclusion; competition; and commercialization. Privacy is a central concern, particularly regarding data-related privacy harm. Government agencies, civil society groups, and industry stakeholders are focused on addressing the sensitive nature of biometric data generated by XR devices and the challenges of ensuring user consent and data protection in this context. Initiatives range from regulatory reviews of privacy laws to advocacy for data governance frameworks and self-imposed standards by industry players.

VR can produce huge amounts of biometric data from even 20 minutes of use

Safety, equity, and inclusion are also prominent themes. Efforts concentrate on preventing interpersonal harm, promoting user education, and ensuring accessibility for disabled users. While industry emphasizes self-governance and user safety initiatives, civil society groups advocate for inclusive design and educational resources. Concerns about harmful user conduct and content chime with broader debates amongst courts, policymakers, regulators, and technology companies about platform accountability.

Competition in the XR market is a focal point for regulators, particularly regarding the dominance of big tech firms like Meta. Regulatory actions aim to prevent further consolidation of market power and address concerns about data advantages. For instance, competition in XR has been the focus of a recent high profile case by the FTC – seeking to block Meta’s $400M acquisition of VR fitness software company, Within. (In 2023, Meta won a federal court case approving the acquisition, with the FTC subsequently withdrawing from adjudication). Competition is also seen as an opportunity to foster economic equity and cultural diversity, with initiatives supporting marginalized developers and emphasizing the importance of diverse market competition. Commercialization efforts seek to capitalize on the economic potential of XR technology. Government initiatives, such as funding programs and research initiatives, aim to boost regional technology sectors and foster innovation. Industry standards groups also play a role in facilitating dialogue and cooperation to develop interoperable standards essential for industry growth.

What are the enforcement mechanisms?

Enforcement mechanisms for XR governance initiatives encompass a variety of approaches, ranging from existing laws to new regulatory proposals, non-binding initiatives such as technological standards and educational efforts, and self-governance practices by industry stakeholders. Regulatory responses, particularly in the European context, have included public consultations and the development of domain-specific laws to address emerging issues. However, challenges such as jurisdictional concerns and the rapidly evolving nature of XR technology have led to a cautious approach, with some stakeholders advocating for principles-led governance frameworks and a tech-agnostic approach to regulation. Self-governance initiatives, such as Meta’s Responsible Innovation guidelines, aim to embed social benefit and moral responsibility within industry practices. However, these frameworks have been critiqued as vague and potentially opportunistic. Co-governance initiatives involve collaboration between industry, civil society groups, and sometimes government agencies. While these initiatives aim to provide various stakeholders with a voice in governance processes, questions remain about the extent of their effectiveness and inclusivity.

What does studying XR governance tell us?

Stakeholders, including governments, civil society groups, and industry, hold differing views on whether existing regulatory frameworks are sufficient for XR or if novel, media-specific governance initiatives are needed. Some stakeholders argue that XR faces similar issues to other technologies, such as data privacy, competition, and user safety, and thus can be governed using existing laws and regulations. They advocate for a technology-agnostic approach to governance, emphasizing broader frameworks that can adapt to the rapidly changing XR landscape.

The embodied nature of VR raises questions about speculative governance

Contrarily, other stakeholders believe that XR requires novel governance initiatives tailored specifically to its unique challenges and opportunities. While many of these initiatives are aspirational and speculative, they are driven by a belief in the need to proactively address XR’s societal impacts and ensure responsible innovation. However, there are limitations to speculative governance approaches, including the difficulty of predicting the future trajectory of technology and the potential for industry interests to shape governance agendas.

As we argue, one problem with such speculative, media-specific governance is that we may see regulators, policymakers and so on prioritising industrial narratives and visions of XR over addressing present-day concerns and root causes of issues. Moving forward, effective XR governance should balance technological specificity with technological agnosticism, understanding the unique challenges of XR while also integrating them into broader discussions about technology governance. For a full, detailed analysis please see the full-length publication in New Media and Society.

Egliston, B, Carter, M and Clark, K.E. (February, 2024) Who wants to govern the metaverse?. Critical Augmented and Virtual Reality Researchers Network (CAVRN). https://cavrn.org/who-wants-to-govern-the-metaverse/(opens in a new tab)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.