What is the Metaverse and Why Does a Law Firm Care?

December 1, 2021

With the announcement of Facebook’s ambitious rebrand to “Meta”, many considered the move an attempt to distance the business from increasing criticism mounting against the social media giant. At the centre of countless controversies, including election misinformation, data harvesting, and violations of user privacy, many took the rebrand to be a simple side-step from a murky online history. As reports on the rebrand increased however, a different reality began to emerge - a virtual reality, if you will.  

When the infamous social media platform announced that it would be hiring 10,000 new members of staff “to help build the metaverse”, many were perplexed. What was this metaverse? What did it have to do with Facebook? And importantly - why now?

What is the metaverse?

In simple terms, the metaverse is a 3D rendered virtual reality on the internet, that can be engaged with for work and for play (most immersively with the use of a VR headset). Sounds fairly simple, right? Not quite. While the metaverse has been linked to a number of programs that came before it - such as Second Life or World of Warcraft - this surge of activity surrounding the metaverse promises a little more than the chance to loot dungeons or ride dragons.

The metaverse can offer opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t have been available in the “real world”. From virtual office board meetings, to wearing fancy virtual trainers that you’d otherwise need to leave on the shop floor, the metaverse is a virtual reality that allows users to immerse themselves in a world that pushes the boundaries of what’s possible.  

While it has echoes of its gaming predecessors, the metaverse is being marked as a significantly more ambitious experience. Unlike gaming, where there’s often a story arc and to-do list, the metaverse presents an entirely virtual world wherein a user could have the ability to create real estate, buy and create consumer products, develop careers, and establish economies. In a nutshell - the metaverse provides a whole new world of possibilities.  

And many are catching on. While Facebook’s meta announcement garnered a lot of interest, they’re not the only ones looking to stake their claim within this space. Microsoft Teams have a planned metaverse release, while industry giants ranging from Nvidia to Unity software are similarly dipping their toe into the metaverse wave.

Why now?

To answer why now, it helps to look at the stratospheric year blockchain has had.  

From NFTs to ETFs our news feeds have been dominated by technological developments in this space throughout 2021. Despite blockchain technology first emerging in 2008, it has truly entered into a golden-age of sorts. There are a number of reasons for this embrace of digital assets.  

  • First, mainstream adoption of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Dogecoin have thrust blockchain into the limelight, with infamous entrepreneurs including Elon Musk going so far as to admit their possession of a cryptocurrency investment portfolio. The metaverse offers new ways to use and spend cryptocurrencies and build digital economies.
  • Second, NFTs have provided an answer to the often complex nature of monetising content - allowing creators to be fairly rewarded where before there was pittance.  
  • Third, and perhaps most important in the context of the metaverse, is the covid-19 pandemic. The global pandemic forced countless nations to overhaul their working and leisure practices, pushing millions of businesses into the online world. Where before there was a growing interest in the adoption of technology to improve processes, the global pandemic accelerated this need for digital transformation. Our reliance on the digital world became incredibly prevalent, and as the world begins to open up again we’re quickly realising there’s a “new normal” in town.

This experience highlighted the other-wordly abilities of online life and in many respects brought the virtual world and the real one closer together.  

Challenges for the Metaverse

Despite the excitement surrounding the metaverse, there has been some trepidation, with many anticipating the metaverse as a significantly more dystopian reality than the utopia Zuckerberg describes. When the web was first created, many underestimated its power, and as a result it was relatively easy for a monopoly of tech giants to gain a never before seen degree of control. You can understand then why complete control over a virtual reality where we live, work, and play, would be an even more dangerous power to wield.  

The legal profession has signalled data protection is going to be a huge challenge. Where we create digital versions of ourselves to explore the metaverse, those worlds we enter, and companies we interact with, will learn even more about who we are, how we like to interact and what we like to buy.

Any company building a metaverse will need to consider issues such as:

  • How to make its platforms secure. The more time people invest in the metaverse, building their persona, investing in digital items, a data breach could not only mean distress but a large amount of actual financial loss.  
  • How to tell people about their privacy rights – the metaverse knows no international boundaries. In the UK and Europe, we benefit from the strictest data protection laws in the world which means that companies who use our personal information must tell individuals how they use it. However, how is this going to be communicated and how is this going to adapt for persons coming from different international boundaries?
  • Consent fatigue – data protection law is not all about consent, but sometimes it is. Consent is often used in the world of advertising, an industry which will have huge opportunities in the metaverse. However, with so many parties involved, there is a risk that participants of the metaverse will become tired of dealing with consent messages.  

To overcome these challenges, the metaverse will need to be built with privacy in mind from the outset – which may be a harder problem to overcome for companies who are already struggling with legacy privacy practices.  

But wait, there are also further legal issues to untangle – who will own intellectual property in a world without borders (where intellectual property laws are often tied to jurisdictions) and how will we manage contractual terms when we do business in the metaverse?

Blockchain to the rescue!

Fortunately, the metaverse benefits from blockchain’s decentralisation of power. By building a metaverse on blockchain technology, it prevents a concentration of power and the avoidance of “a central gatekeeper” as Herman Narula of Improbable states.  

It can also provide for some levels of anonymity to protect users and offers a way to build smart contracts to help maintain some level of order in a new digital world.  

What’s next?

With that in mind, Meta isn’t the first to tackle the metaverse, and it certainly won’t be the last. Some of our very own clients are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the digital realm, with CEO and founder of Vault Hill Jimi Daodu stating, "People stop thinking because they can't see beyond what is possible! Imagine a world where anything is possible and not even your imagination is a limitation."

Receive our insights directly to your inbox by signing up to our newsletter

Recommended content