Do human rights exist in a virtual world? Of course, they do. Behind every avatar is a human. And they deserve the same rights in a virtual world as they are afforded in the physical world. A human operating an avatar has the right to feel safe and secure. They have the right to be free from discrimination. The applicability of human rights should not be dependent on the channel through which a human interacts with the world.

Yet the channel does somewhat influence the application of human rights. In a virtual world (which the metaverse is), human rights are easier to violate and harder to protect. There is a restaurant in Japan where the food is served by robots that are operated remotely by people with physical disabilities. It’s a marvelous example of using virtual tools to encourage equality. But who is ensuring the rights of those operators? And to whose standards?

History and experience suggest that the virtualization of human interaction also increases the risk of anti-social behaviors that infringe on others’ human rights. It took most governments some time to fully recognize the risk of online violence, bullying, harassment and indoctrination that came with the last iteration of the internet. In a virtual and more anonymous world, these risks will likely become more acute and potentially more difficult to manage.

Decentralized, but not democratized

We should also recognize that virtualization can create great inequality. In ‘the great virtualization’ that accompanied the pandemic, white collar workers stayed home and saved money, blue collar workers toiled at the frontlines, while restaurant and service staff found themselves on furlough or unemployed. The movement of significant economic activity into the metaverse could exacerbate that inequality as those with skills transferable to the metaverse could enjoy greater standards of living, while those without could get pushed further down the social ladder.

Access is another massive contributor to inequality in a virtual world. And it is one that many governments have been working for decades to solve. Yet the reality is that cities still tend to have better access to lower-cost, higher-quality internet services than rural areas. The wealthy still have better access to enabling kit and technology. And white males still tend to get more favorable results from algorithms than do other demographics. Who you are, where you live and how much money you have could significantly influence your access to the metaverse.

Left unchecked, there is a real risk that the value of the metaverse will flow towards certain markets, cities and demographics. The current digital divide could suddenly widen. Power – economic and social – could become more centralized. Inequality could become embedded.

Creative and constructive

So what can governments and regulators do to better manage human rights and equality in the metaverse? The first thing is to start engaging. You need to understand the context and be at the table for the conversations to have any influence over them. Governments should also accept accountability and ownership over the issues. In the last iteration of the internet, many governments stood on the sidelines for far too long, leaving private companies to become the unelected judges of which activities breached rights and which did not. That cannot be allowed to happen again.

At the same time, governments must find a balance between control and creativity. At this stage in the metaverse’s lifecycle, governments should encourage innovation. Too much regulation may stifle the value the metaverse can deliver. It could also create a new level of inequality where law-abiding participants in highly-regulated markets carry the regulatory burden while those operating from more relaxed jurisdictions avoid the controls.

Perhaps most importantly, governments will need to work together on this issue. They should enter the discussions recognizing that different cultures and markets have different definitions of human rights and equality – but that consensus must still be found around a minimum standard of protection. The OECD recently managed to get 136 countries to agree on a global minimum tax rate; surely governments can agree on some basic human rights in the metaverse.

Time for capabilities and collaboration

Governments cannot govern without first protecting their citizens’ rights. That is fundamental to the covenant between citizens and their governments. And it is true in the physical world and any virtual ones. Governments have no choice but to lead the way.

My advice to government leaders and regulators is to start exploring what the metaverse might mean in terms of regulation – identify the emerging and embedded risks, understand what might already be covered by existing regulation, consider where and when new regulation may be required. At the same time, they must proactively work together with other governments (preferably at a global level) to develop a shared understanding and view of human rights regulation in the metaverse.

The metaverse could – and should – be a force for good and a driver of equality. But it could just as easily evolve into a dystopian world. Governments should step up if we are to avoid the latter.