The South Korean government this week unveiled a set of ethical guidelines for the fast-growing metaverse ecosystem, in a bid to deal with a growing number of problematic issues in virtual space.
The Ministry of Science and ICT on Monday announced the nonbinding guidelines based on three core values -- sincere identity, safe experience and sustainable prosperity. The broad core values are designed to make sure users can develop their identity in a safe and sustainable virtual world.
Under the core values, the ministry also announced eight principles for metaverse system developers and users: authenticity, autonomy, reciprocity, respect for privacy, fairness, personal information protection, inclusiveness and responsibility for the future.
“The metaverse will become a space where daily life is expanded by convergence with various fields such as e-commerce, education and medical care,” said Park Yun-kyu, second vice minister of science and ICT. He added that the government will offer support to create an “exemplary” metaverse ecosystem.
Experts predicted the value of the domestic metaverse market will reach 400 trillion won ($303 billion) by 2025, up from 170 trillion won last year. But the frenetic growth of the virtual platforms -- where people can navigate a new web of convergence services integrated with the real world -- is generating a number of problems such as offensive user behaviors, sexual harassment and the growth of indecent content exposed to minors.
A recent study by the Korea Information Society Development Institute showed that among metaverse users, the proportion of those who have experienced offensive words or actions reached 40 percent, and more than 25 percent of respondents said they were affected by sexual harassment via virtual avatars on metaverse platforms.
Not only platforms specializing in metaverse services, but also various streaming platforms are facing such issues as more people interact with each other on new platforms where guidelines are relatively loose and where imposing penalties for real-time actions between virtual characters is difficult.
Moreover, the number of VTubers -- streamers who deliver content via virtual avatars armed with real-time motion capture software -- is on the rise on YouTube and other streamlining platforms such as Twitch. The trend heralds a growth of new services that lack proper guidelines or regulations regarding digital fraud, sex crimes and privacy theft.
Although the Science Ministry’s guidelines came after a team of experts on ethics, information protection, law and engineering began to study the ethical issues in May, reactions to the guidelines appear mixed.
Those who favor the government-led guidelines say that the metaverse industry has long lacked a proper safety net for entirely new services that intersect various online and offline businesses. The announcement of the guidelines will offer a much-needed general direction for platform developers planning to set up protection solutions for users.
Some critics, however, view the guidelines, though not legally binding, as the beginning of a state regulation on the metaverse industry at large. Given that the government wields enormous influence on almost all sectors in the economy, local metaverse platform operators are likely to find it hard to ignore the guidelines in running their businesses.
It is not the first time that the government’s guidelines worked as a regulatory stumbling block for service operators. When the country began to build up the internet services, the government announced a set of ethical guidelines, which resulted in regulatory barriers for those who wanted to kick off new internet services.
As the local metaverse market is still in its fledgling stage, the government is likely to introduce new guidelines along with some revisions to related laws that could catch metaverse firms off guard with burdensome regulations, critics say.
There is little doubt the metaverse is a new virtual frontier with potentially great growth momentum across various businesses. But the metaverse could turn into a wasteful field where digital crimes and abuse proliferate if proper rules are not enforced. To strike a balance and nurture the new industry, the government should fully reflect opinions of metaverse platform operators and users before rolling out new regulations.