Augmented Reality, Virtual Existence, the 'Metaverse'... the stuff of science fiction and Simpsons spoofs is becoming reality and is doing so at a pace no one could have predicted!
While it is incredibly exciting to be living in times of such unprecedented technological advancement, there are many of us who are speculative about how these new concepts of living are going to affect general everyday life, especially when it comes to the adoption of 'real life' practices in a virtual universe, such as the practice of law.
So... What is the 'Metaverse'?
I should mention here that the term 'Metaverse' is both vast and vague, two words we don't particularly love in the legal industry, so I shall do my best to give you an interpretation of the available literature, but by no means should the following be taken as the only definition!
The Metaverse is a concept of augmented and virtual reality that would allow for more interactive and integrated cyberspace. The overarching aim is to create a 'Reality' within cyberspace that can be lived and experienced in a way that is comparable to how we live our lives outside the internet.
We already have technologies in place, such as 'Fortnite' and 'Oculus', that allow us to attend concerts, learn online, and buy and sell goods in virtual spaces. Many of these technologies could already be considered 'Metaversal', all we need is for them to be interoperable and we're pretty much there!
A key feature of proposed plans for the Metaverse is the concept of a 'digital economy', though whether this economy would be driven by physical currency - like online shopping, or cryptocurrencies is as yet unknown. However, the recent explosion of NFTs (a form of cryptocurrency from the Ethereum blockchain) into the public eye and a generally increasing interest in bitcoin, dogecoin, etc. does lead me to believe that a virtual currency is the most likely option.
With this in mind, what implications does the Metaverse have for the legal industry?
The key issue with 'Law' in the Metaverse is that, by current definitions, nothing within the Metaverse is real. We, therefore, have to determine how far the law can be applied and extended to property and situations that technically don't exist.
Example - Property:
There has been some considerable speculation as to the variety of markets that will be available to consumers in the Metaverse, one of the most commonly requested/suggested being the property market. Virtual houses for our virtual avatars.
While this represents an exciting investment opportunity for many (plus a chance to play 'real life' Sims), can the strict rules and regulations surrounding the purchasing of a property in the 'real world' be applied to the Metaverse?
Also, what happens when, as in so many cases, partnerships break down/relationships end, and shared property must now be equitably divided?
What about commercial properties - can you get a mortgage on a virtual property?
So many questions arise from a single point of law.
Example - Data Privacy:
We also have to face the fact that personally identifiable information (PII) is going to be put significantly more at risk. An interoperable combination of virtual banking and social media etc. all storing data in essentially the same place, (though I'm sure, like with current cloud technologies, accordingly protected) means that data leaks may become a more frequent occurrence. What happens to data privacy laws in the metaverse?
One could assume that the European General Data Protection Rules (GDPR) would apply in the Metaverse - but how does that apply to citizens accessing the metaverse from countries not covered by European GDPR? How will data transfers be protected if sent via the Metaverse to data collectors and processors based in regions outside of the European Economic Area (EEA) and the list of additional approved countries? Either the governments of those countries would have to submit to virtual data regulations that they don't practice in the physical world or the general data security of the entire Metaverse will have to be amended to be more mindful of those accessing it. What do you think?
Example - Criminal Law:
One of the most worrying unknowns concerning law and the Metaverse is the practice and enforcement of criminal law. With the level of interactivity proposed between the human and their avatar self, how are crimes such as theft and assault going to be prosecuted when occurring in the Metaverse? If a virtual avatar takes a virtual possession from another virtual avatar how is the law enforceable?
We already have VR goggles and a move is being made towards further items of bodily wear (see Haptic Technology) that will allow you to interact on a more human level in the Metaverse. In the eventuality where we can feel, at least in some respect, what our avatar feels, what is the protocol for assault and other more physical crimes?
What conclusions can we draw?
While we might not have all (or any) of the answers yet, it is clear that careful thought and consideration are needed when it comes to implementing the practice of law in the Metaverse. Legal professionals might benefit from a study of current legislation and legal literature to make sure they really understand all possible loopholes and specifications to laws that may or may not make them applicable to virtual practices. We should also expect a dynamic shift in the practice of law as the Metaverse continues to expand and become a more inclusive environment in which people spend more time.
It is imperative that law firms make the most of the available cutting-edge technology we have today so that when that inevitable shift is made, we are as up-to-date, familiar, and prepared as we possibly can be.