Metalaw: the Law of the Metaverse

Ciarán McCollum
metaverse law
Illustration: © IoT For All

2022 will witness the birth of a new reality; a virtual one which, from on silicon high, has been dubbed “the metaverse“. It’s an immersive digital world where you may soon work, play and, naturally, enter disputes. As users resolve their differences a new legal system will emerge that we may come to call by an old name: metalaw. With power in the virtual world concentrated in the hands of a few creators, we must take care that metalaw, or the law of the metaverse, does not end up slanted in their favor.

The metaverse, by means of headsets and personalized digital avatars, promises users a cartoonish imitation of the real world. A key technology of Web 3.0, it has been described by veteran tech CEO John Hanke as a “dystopian nightmare” and dismissed by Elon Musk as the equivalent of having a “TV on your nose.” Nonetheless, powerful interests are promoting it, most notably for work purposes. Lawyers, particularly the young and tech-savvy, should be licking their chops because users, as well as sleepily attending meetings, will be capable of harming each other.

As existing law struggles to cope with once-unimaginable actions, a new legal paradigm will take shape. What will we call it? Well, metalaw seems an obvious term. The only problem is that it already exists. In fact, it predates the coinage of metaverse (a portmanteau of “meta” meaning “beyond” and “universe” originating in a 1992 sci-fi novel) by several decades. Currently defined, it’s the law regulating – wait for it – “relationships between different races in the universe.” What kind of crazy lawyer came up with that?

We return to the dawn of the space age… On September 20, 1956, on page 12, alongside Golden Age advertising for French knits at Bonwit’s, the New York Times reported a pressing need for international space law. Modern science had “far outstripped the law”, an astronautical summit was told. A Washington lawyer called Andrew G. Haley was ready to play catch-up. Haley would become the world’s first space attorney. He thought that “the naked essence” of terrestrial law could be found in the New Testament: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them (King James Version, Matthew, 7:12.”

Also known as the Golden Rule, this notion of justice, according to Haley, suited human activity on Earth. But metalawyers “may deal… with sapient beings of a different kind” viz. ET-like beings with an innate sense of equity. Therefore the fundament of the new system should be “do unto others as they would have done unto them.” Haley coined the term metalaw: a law that boldly goes where no law has gone before.

It’s likely that many today, disciples of Christ and the sci-fi gods alike, would question Haley’s blind faith in the judgment of extraterrestrials (the homicidal antagonist of the Alien series creeps to mind). Thankfully, a theoretical dilemma. Yet our current predicament with the metaverse is just as mind-boggling and precarious: in traversing our unspoiled artificial realm, we must decide how to treat others and how we would like them to treat us. Won’t real-world norms retain their force? Not necessarily, no. The notion that existing law will apply mutatis mutandis to our virtual reality rings as false today as an assumption in 1956 that Judeo-Christian values would obtain on Mars.

To take a simple criminal example: murder. Ending someone’s life in the real world is a serious crime, in many cases deserving of the harshest possible sentence. But what about the metaverse? Is homicide possible there? Well, the key to meaningful interaction is the use of grinning avatars for which everything from clothing to gestures can be purchased. Robbery has already happened in testing, so meta-murder seems possible too. The consequence may not be utter annihilation as in The Matrix, where death in the simulated world means death in the real. But whether hacked to death with a keyboard while logged out or with a cleaver during a virtual town hall, there will be implications for the victim’s financial and emotional, perhaps even (meta)physical well-being.

We’ve already seen the effects of hacking user data and privacy issues with IoT. These smart devices are currently designed to aid users in their daily lives. The metaverse is designed to eventually be a place where users can essentially live. Any vulnerabilities currently existing with IoT are only augmented by metaverse technology. The cost of crimes against metaverse users has the potential to be far more detrimental than current technologies.

For example, your employer requires that you log into the metaverse for work. One morning, many years hence, you find a hacker has destroyed your avatar, a painstakingly and expensively constructed artificial body. It can’t be restored. You miss an important meeting. Maybe you miss a week of them, or more, as you reel from the loss of your virtual investment, your virtual self. Who will compensate you? Will the miscreant be found? Will he be punished?

Let’s be clear: we’re not just talking about proprietary damage. Just last month a tester of a virtual reality product created by Meta Platforms, Inc. (formerly known as Facebook) claimed to have been touched inappropriately; an “intense” occurrence that made her feel “isolated”. A Meta representative called it “absolutely unfortunate”. Unfortunate but not, surely, unforeseen.

Although the metaverse is so vast in conception that no one can predict the full legal ramifications, and its public appearance so sudden that few outside Silicon Valley have been able to give them much thought (a quick-draw US attorney who has laid claim to ownership of the metalaw trademark being one notable exception), you can be sure that Big Tech’s legal consultants and in-house lawyers have been meditating on them for some time.

Disputes will be resolved in the courts of reality, initially. But who’s to say the Valley elite haven’t planned simulated courthouses as part of a new meta-jurisdiction? Similar to sea, air, and space law, this could be the subject of an international treaty. Contracts may eventually oblige users to settle disputes in meta-courts over which, to cut costs, presides a juridical Hal 9000. It’s not at all far-fetched: China has already robed its first robot judge in real-world criminal matters.

What about justice? Presently, a tiny number of people have an overwhelming, almost omnipotent influence in the creation of what is to be their new cash-cow as well as our new reality. It would take some very altruistic beings indeed, maybe of the kind which in Haley’s imagination we’d exclusively meet on our space travels, not to take advantage. Arguably, metaverse companies already are.

When investigating the aforementioned groping incident, Meta, Inc. determined that the tester had failed to use built-in safety features, such as the ability to block interaction with other users. Meta got “good feedback” and would now endeavor to “make [the blocking feature] trivially easy and findable.” Reading between the lines, the company wants users to take responsibility for protecting themselves.

Meta will give you a “findable” means of defense. If you don’t find it in time that’s your problem, not Meta’s. Eschewing responsibility in this way will please shareholders; no need for expensive policing and, what’s more, possible protection from suit. As far as Meta’s concerned, what’s at stake is not the welfare of users per se, or what they might consider being in their interests, rather the viability of the metaverse as a profitable new dimension.

The influence, never mind the judgment, of the courts on these matters is not yet clear. For this and other reasons, it seems appropriate to recycle Haley’s term. Barring any significant Close Encounters, metalaw as currently defined has little practical use. Re-purposed, it may again come to the aid of a legal community that finds itself eating the dust of scientists, or rather computer engineers. Humanity’s ancient Golden Rule may even be reformulated somewhat along the lines originally proposed by Haley, as the denizens of Silicon Valley decree that each visitor to their new reality does unto others as they, the Creators, would have him do. In other words, the Golden Rule may be supplanted by the Bottom Line.

Ciarán McCollum
Ciarán McCollum
Boldly going where few lawyers have gone before
Boldly going where few lawyers have gone before