Governing the Metaverse: Lessons from the Past, Present and into the Future

RE06 Wed 1pm Jenni - Emily L

Source: (2020)

The expansive features of the metaverse ecosystem means that a variety of governance approaches need to be considered. This essay will focus on identifying and critiquing current regulation approaches in relation to internet and platform governance in order to offer both lessons and gaps for how the metaverse should be governed. The focus will be an issue-based approach followed by governance solutions. The opening section will contextualise the history of the metaverse and governance challenges. The next section will examine two key governance concerns. The first will consider privacy issues and critiques of governance by design and principled frameworks. The second will consider control issues and critiques of self-regulation as well as decentralised/alternative governance approaches.

Governance & The Metaverse: What is it? Where is it going?

Just at the Web 2.0 era saw major shifts within the internet ecosystem, the metaverse ecosystem and associated Web 3.0 technology raises the next possible wave of change for an interconnected global society. The complete vision of the metaverse is an evolving concept and is being defined from a range of different actors and industries. In the current context, it has been defined by some as an extended reality’ experience or an hyperconnected digital realm where both digital and real-world elements are seamlessly blended (Pesce, 2022). Tech CEO Matthew Ball has outlined several key characteristics of metaverse related technology and digital systems, including real time and sensual interactivity, interoperability of data sharing, and an ‘always on’ and always connected mode. ‘Metaverse’ conceptualisations have been in discussion since the early 1980s (Ball, 2020) and have evolved alongside shifting ideas about the internet as a free, collaborative, connected and deregulated space with multi-stakeholder and economic interests (Pesce, 2022).

The metaverse experience will involve a mix of both digital/physical elements. “Technology” by Eric Mesa is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

The metaverse holds the potential to provide unforeseen opportunities and obstacles just as the Web 2.0 era allowed (Ball, 2020). This raises serious implications for how the metaverse should be governed. Leading global and multi-stakeholder strategies for metaverse governance are currently evolving, including the ‘Defining and Building the Metaverse’ launched this year by the World Economic Forum. It focuses on two key considerations for research and regulation:

  • Governance including issues such as user privacy, safety, and control/regulation
  • Economic and social value

The following video (CNET, 2022) gives an overview of current metaverse debates and examples.

Surveillance & Data Governance: Is effective privacy possible?

Current surveillance raise significant implications for how the metaverse should be governed. The metaverse establishes unprecedented avenues for the ‘datafication’ and ‘hyper-connectivity’ of users which increases the scope of surveillance by digital corporations and governments (Bibri and Allam, 2022). This can be tied to a global ‘techlash’ towards issues such as social media platforms and the tracking of online behaviour for the purpose of hidden commercial benefits (Zuboff, 2019). This process of ‘surveillance capitalism’ originated from the start of the Web 2.0 era, where digital platforms such as Google dominated (Zuboff, 2019). The Cambridge Analytica scandal is one event that has brought such issues to the forefront of current debates. This involved user data from Facebook being used to sway voters in the US election.

“Data Security Breach” by Blogtrepreneur is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Technology used within the metaverse holds the potential to increase this to tracking most aspects of users online and offline interactions, including everyday movements, real time emotions and eye-tracking (Rosenberg, 2022). Shifts in movement tracking have already been seen in transitions within COVID-19 lockdowns such as the use of contact tracing apps and in the use of digital gaming such as Pokemon Go. The former shows how easily tracking can be accepted by users and the latter how behaviour can be altered on a large scale. There have also been increases in sensory data collection available through augmented and mixed reality glasses by Google and Snapchat, raising extensive avenues for the data collection.

Virtual, augmented and mixed reality tools represent enhanced possibilities for connectivity. “Exploring the Universe in Virtual Reality” by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

If surveillance is an intrinsic component to an evolving digitally mediated landscape, then governance through principles and design intensions (Rosenberg, 2022, Stark et al, 2021) is one avenue to prevent significant loss of agency and control for users. Rosenberg (2022, p. 7) argues that an overall principled framework is needed for metaverse infrastructure and business model designs, including ‘restricting the monitoring…and emotional analysis of metaverse users’. This could be embedded through existing privacy regulations such as the Facebook privacy committee and the European Union General Data Protection Regulation. In saying this, there is a need to go beyond a design component focus and instead consider the underlying political contexts of technical and artificial intelligence systems (Greene et al, 2019, as cited in Stark et al, 2021). These recommendations also raise new challenges for how platforms and governments will interact with each other as well as reinforce that these powerful actors are the key avenues for governance.

Control and safety: who should govern the metaverse?

Control is a key challenge to consider in the governance of the metaverse. The evolving nature of the internet has generated a variety of governance models for corporations, states, NGOs and competing interests between these (Gorwa, 2019). Ideas about internet governance, particularly platform self-regulation, may very well frame ideas about the metaverse considering the evolving dominance of the open and corporate internet (O’Hara and Hall, 2018) as well as platform owners such as at Facebook outlining their own metaverse intentions. As opposed to the internet’s early development, regulators and developers are aware of the large economic potential of the metaverse, which challenges who will control the metaverse (Ball, 2022). Listen to this interview from The Vergecast (2021) to hear about Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s perspectives on the metaverse.

Self-regulation by platforms raise serious implications for how existing power relations may be reinforced through metaverse technology without adequate governance. This is seen in self-regulation processes often failing to address echo chambers (Bibri and Allam, 2022) and enabling ‘toxic technocultures’ to evolve (Duguay et al, 2020, Massanari, 2017). The latter was seen in the Gamergate controversary on Reddit in 2014 which involved a series of misogynistic harassments, where design and moderation processes enabled such behaviour to thrive (Massanari, 2017).

A different control consideration is the increased economic power that platforms and governments may obtain through the commercialisation of the metaverse. Turning digital content into a profitable asset has been highly effective in the gaming industry (WEF, 2022) as seen in the business model of Fortnite. Some countries have started to invest in the digital economy as seen in Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announcing investments into metaverse services.


Social media platforms are already playing a role in how the metaverse is being defined and developed. “Social Media Mix 3D Icons” by Blogtrepreneur is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Such issues could be governed through applying a radical ‘human rights framework’ to metaverse technologies such as AI, however embedding such discourse within corporate frameworks is limited (Stark et al, 2021, p. 267). Gorwa (2019) highlights that a mix of multi-stakeholder approaches, including those that are nonbinding, have become favoured in terms of internet governance, but there have been challenges with applying this to platform governance. The Facebook Oversight Body raise ideas about applying international governance models (Gorwa, 2019) and alternative approaches such as decentralised autonomous organisations (DAO) raise ideas of new forms of user and community-led forms of governance and decision making. The question is then how to balance this alongside government regulation such as national AI policies and how to address persisting regulation gaps, particularly considering that global governance measures are often not enforceable nor culturally specific. Balancing the control between nation states and platforms, and how corporations are already dominating metaverse discussions, raise challenges for increased inclusion of decentralised and non-corporate actors/policies.

See the following video (Marr, 2022) exploring examples of DAOs.

Concluding Thoughts

The various approaches to governance that have been applied to issues such as surveillance, data privacy, control and safety demonstrate key lessons for how the metaverse should be governed. Some are metaverse specific while others draw on lessons from internet and platform governance approaches more broadly. These include:

  • International and multi-stakeholder approaches such as the Defining and Building the Metaverse Strategy (WEF)
  • National and regional regulation such as national AI strategies and the GDPR in the European Union.
  • User based approaches such as Decentralised Autonomous Organisations
  • Platform based approaches such as the Facebook Oversight Body.
Governance approaches from international bodies and platforms themselves will be mixed. “UNIDIR 2019 Innovations Dialogue, Digital Technologies and International Security” by UN Geneva is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Efforts to govern current and future technological systems demonstrate that ‘multiple and overlapping forms of governance’ will continue to be expand in the metaverse (Gorwa, 2019, p. 15). When applying this to current societal issues and examples of metaverse technologies, governance effectiveness is limited by factors such as limited enforceability, lack of cultural considerations, reduced roles for smaller actors and economic values often overriding ethical concerns, which will impact future regulation possibilities.

This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.


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