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The metaverse – who is watching?

The metaverse – who is watching?

Posted on 23rd November 2021

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“OfCom has raised concerns” is hardly a news item, but in this case it is, because I believe it goes to the heart of the arguments that will proliferate in the next few years over the development of the metaverse.  If you were with me last week, you’ll know that the metaverse is what will happen when “We will no longer think of the synthetic and the real as distinct realms” or, as Facebook describes it,virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you.”

The fact that the metaverse is now making the mainstream media (I have even seen it on BBC’s Spanish channel, El Mundo), shows that this is going to happen in the next decade or two, whether we like it or not. 

OfCom’s recent concerns were not actually about the metaverse. Instead, they were about the control tech companies’ algorithms have over the news we see and the lack of transparency about said algorithms. However, the argument is essentially the same: it’s the perennial debate that has been going on since antiquity, viz, “quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (“who guards the guards themselves?” or, “who watches the watchers?”).

Although Ofcom will not issue its report into this until next summer, it is essentially part of the war between the ‘traditional’ media and the tech giants. The group that owns the Daily Mail is taking legal action against Google, claiming that the latter is “harming publishers by manipulating advertising auctions, exploiting its dominant position by controlling the tools publishers use while degrading news websites in the search ranking if they do not yield enough advertising sales.”  Google, naturally, says this is all mince (actually they said it was “completely inaccurate” but you know what I mean).

This, in turn, is part of a larger battle, or rather a series of battles all fought as part of the same war.  On the one side, we have the tech giants and also the authoritarian states that are happy to use FRT and other tech to control their citizenry, on the other we have those same citizens.  If they are unlucky, they live in a country where surveillance via smart city tech is increasingly part and parcel of everyday life: if they are slightly more fortunate they live in a democracy where there is the chance of at least fighting back to maintain a semblance of privacy. Returning to Spain, it’s interesting to learn that a new bill is going through their parliament that will give their citizens a legal right to speak to a human rather than a robot on customer service calls.  It’s believed to be a first in the world and it also will impose a maximum waiting time (oh for this here for HMRC!) to be kept on hold as well as preventing unscrupulous companies from using complaint calls as an opportunity to sell new services, unless they are offering an improvement on an existing contract.

Which brings me back to the metaverse.  Critics say it is by no means clear that the data we will all have to surrender to take part in this brave new world will not be used for purposes that benefit the tech companies (Facebook, Microsoft et al) who will almost certainly control much of the metaverse.  The barrage of bad PR that has been thrown at Facebook and the suggestion that they put profits before people (which, if you think about it, has been the principal complaint about big business throughout history) suggests that the debate about how citizens can safeguard privacy (while still enjoying the benefits that tech brings) will run and run. However, the single biggest problem, in my view, is the Catch-22 that OfCom is investigating; namely, that to maintain competitive advantage the tech giants need to be confident no other firm can steal their algorithms’ secrets, while on the other hand, without those secrets being made public, how can we know that they are truly being used first and foremost for our wellbeing?

Answers, on a (virtual) postcard anyone?

Scott Bentley, Be-IT

Posted in News, Opinion

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