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Cyberethics & the Metaverse: How the Facebook outage highlighted the need for values-based policies and practices in cyberspace

Photo by Richard Horvath on Unsplash

Recent events linked to Facebook (or should we say, Meta) and the metaverse show the reality of how cyberspace permeates our lives. With this enormous influence, questions of cyberethics are more relevant than ever.

Repercussions of the Facebook outage

The massive Meta outage for over 6 hours on 4 October 2021 showed how dependent we are on social media platforms such as Facebook. Not only did the downtime stop users from accessing Facebook, its subsidiaries (Messenger, Whatsapp, Instagram, etc.), and any third-party sites using “Log in with Facebook”, it also slowed down other unrelated web services including Gmail, TikTok and Snapchat.

The impact of the outage was even more disruptive in the developing world, where Meta is the main source of Internet access, communications, and even payment services to over a billion individuals, businesses, and humanitarian organisations.

Later that month, with “Facebook” back up and running, the company changed its name to Meta, symbolising its focus on “building the metaverse”. Since then, increasing mentions of the metaverse in the media have brought the term into public awareness, reflecting the metaverse’s increasing involvement in our lives.

What is the metaverse?

A portmanteau of “meta-” and “universe”, the metaverse is defined as an iteration of the internet where the digital and physical coverage. It integrates virtual and physical life in immersive digital spaces for a range of human activities. In current applications, that means developing augmented reality devices and digitizing different areas of our life, for example, the economy through virtual currencies.

Cyberethics & the metaverse

As the relationship between cyberspace and life grows into a multidimensional digital copy of our physical world, the responsibility to address and apply ethical values in context is greater than ever.

What is cyberethics?

Cyberspace is involved in every aspect of human lives and society, from how we communicate and collect information to how we organise our business and private lives. Cyberethics is the consideration of ethical questions in terms of this contemporary, digitised world.

During Globethics.net’s cyberethics course, we address issues of security, privacy, freedom, responsible citizenship, protection of the vulnerable, governance and democratic participation in the context of cyberspace. Based on the insights in Cyber Ethics 4.0: Serving Humanity with Values, a publication by Prof. Dr. Christoph Stückelberger and Dr. Pavan Duggal, the course aims to equip people from every industry and area of life to see and apply ethics in an ever-evolving world, and particularly as that world becomes a “metaverse”.

Ethical risks of the metaverse

The metaverse is a world of infinite possibilities for digital involvement in our lives, but as cyberspace expands, so do the ethical issues it raises:

  • Collection, storage and use of biometric data: devices that track body movement, brainwaves, and physiological responses aren’t just used for augmented reality games in the metaverse, but by marketers to create personalised selling experiences to make us buy more. This raises several ethical issues and risks: from data leaks, particularly of medical and personal information, to whether or not our personal thought patterns will be tracked.
  • Data scandals and manipulation: increasingly hyperreal deepfakes and cyber-attacks become more dangerous and damaging to individuals and brands.
  • Desensitivisation: as above, as the lines between reality and irreality become more blurred, how will people (and particularly children) know what’s real? This paves the way for data manipulation as well as people acting in the physical world as they would in the virtual world without consequences.
  • Negative physical responses: the overwhelming presence of hyperreality can trigger motion sickness and even epilepsy.
  • Dependence: if we’re already reliant on technology and cyberspace, as the Facebook outage demonstrated, that dependency will only increase as we enter the metaverse. The requirement of health passport apps to access certain services in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic is considered by some as a sign of the increased digital control on our lives that will come with the metaverse.

Considering the ethical risks at stake as our world digitises, we must in turn develop the ethical guidelines in place to ensure the metaverse is a safe and values-driven space for every human being. That includes following ethical practices ourselves as well as holding big tech accountable for transparency and ethical use of data.

What can we do to protect ethics faced with the metaverse?

Without proactively addressing cyberethics issues, the metaverse poses serious risks to individuals and society. Through education to make people aware of these risks and the adoption of best practices to prevent them, we can protect ourselves from the negative consequences of the metaverse.

Transparent information about the metaverse and its impact on peoples’ lives will allow them to make informed consent on their use of technology and its treatment of their data. Our cyberethics course encourages awareness and discussions about the risks of cyberspace as well as workshops to create new principles of behaviour that meet global ethical standards. The course not only empowers individuals and businesses with the tools to recognise the main ethical aspects in a digital environment, but also to analyse cyberspace management approaches and decisions from an ethical perspective, and create new guidelines and best practices to align virtual behaviour with core human values.

By increasing understanding of cyberethics and the metaverse through education, civil society, public and private sector organisations can prepare themselves for the metaverse by developing and applying ethical guidelines for values-based decision-making. These best practices should establish ethics, accountability, transparency, and human-centric design as the underlying drivers in the metaverse.

We must proactively address cyberethics to establish and retain trust in the metaverse

With the many great opportunities brought by the metaverse comes equally great responsibility. To protect the rights, security, privacy, and freedom of all human beings - especially the most vulnerable in society - it is critical that we develop ethical principles and practices in line with technological advances.

Transparent and unbiased education for all on the risks of the metaverse will allow us to protect ourselves and help prevent the negative consequences of an increasingly virtual world. By applying the lessons learned in courses with the Globethics.net Academy and other institutes, we can forge a digitized world based on values, accountability, and trust.

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