ExpressVPN Scholarship 2022 Winning Essay
Université de Montréal, Canada
If you were writing the rules for the metaverse, how would you ensure it were free, open, and safe?
Writing the rules of any social system or community is fundamentally an exercise in compromise. It is impossible to simultaneously maximize freedom, openness and safety in a single system of rules, though it should be noted that the converse is not true; some systems of rules do horribly on all fronts, and those we should obviously avoid. The safest metaverse is one where users are carefully walled-off, one where scammers and any sort of edgy content is aggressively moderated, and all code is carefully hidden, this state of affairs is obviously neither free nor open, even if it is safe. Freedom and openness too are at odds, the spirit of openness requires transparency about the code running on personal devices, a spirit exemplified by the Linux project and the GNU foundation. Yet a requirement that all code be public does not incentivize personal innovation, there is little point trying to build a startup in the metaverse if your code can be trivially stolen.
And so a good compromise will need to give up a little freedom, a little openness and a little safety. The exact importance given to each of our three desires is subjective, and each possible weighing would yield a different rule system. I can only speak about my own preferences.
The first ironclad requirement is some form of decentralization. There should be no single entity controlling every aspect of the metaverse. In practice however, individual actors are likely to control entire layers of the software stack of the metaverse, and those actors should preferably either be non-profits, or at the very least open-source their code. In general the lower on the stack a given technology is, the more it ought to be open-source, building a castle on a single proprietary brick creates too much vulnerability.
The next important requirement is that of unique pseudonymous identities. As machine learning advances, bots impersonating humans will only get better. We crucially want to ensure that only humans interact with the multiverse. Actors controlling large bot armies that act indistinguishable from humans would yield incredible amounts of power. This must be avoided.
Yet, we must find a solution where multiple pseudonymous identities can still be created by a single user. Current identification techniques are embarrassingly inadequate: click patterns, IP addresses, and browser version numbers can all easily be faked, captchas are annoying and have also started to be broken. No, the only real solution must make use of physical identification. The community of metaverse developers should agree on an open-source machine-learning model that would run locally on the VR and AR headsets, perhaps in dedicated chips made for this purpose. This model should be fed a video stream of the user’s face and voice within the headset, the output encrypted and then sent to applications in order to verify the humanity of a user. There should be no association whatsoever between the encrypted output and the specific identity of the person. The only goal here is to ensure that all users are human, not to allow for tracking individuals across accounts and apps. Ensuring that all users are human would do the bulk of the work towards ensuring safety by eliminating most scammers. While users should certainly have the ability to block others individually, speech restrictions and heavy content moderation should be avoided.
The last fundamental building block of our system is the monetization scheme. Most of the opportunities and most of the problems of the internet over the past 30 years stem from one source: advertising. The metaverse should do better. Outright banning ads without providing any other means of monetization would cripple creators and small businesses, ensuring that only large companies have the means to work and create the multiverse.
Yet no one wants an ad-ridden hellscape. Here I believe that Brendan Eich, creator of the Brave Browser, has the right idea. There should be a universal cryptocurrency of the metaverse, each user should have an account, and there should be an automatic small transfer of funds from user to creator proportional to the time spent in any given part of the metaverse. This system does two wonderful things for the metaverse. First, it eliminates clickbait, since payout is proportional to the time spent, a single click is worth almost nothing. Second, it ensures that all voices have a place in the metaverse—the ad agencies should not have the power to financially strangle opinions they don’t like. Of course, this should not be the exclusive monetization system, just the basic one accessible to everyone.
I believe that these structural policies in the metaverse would be enough to ensure safety and openness, every other aspect of the system should be as free as possible, allowing people to do what they wish with few or no rules.