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NIAS Europe Monitor
Facebook's Metaverse: Why it matters to Europe

  Padmashree Anandhan

Rather than asking how Metaverse will turn out to be in the future, the more important question is to analyze how the virtual reality transformation will impact the EU?

On 28 October, Facebook renamed itself to "Meta" after its recent announcement of its five-year plan in the EU, a project named "Metaverse." The project is a combination of virtual and augmented reality aimed to fill the gap of online interactions. While Facebook has faced back-to-back criticisms from recent hackings, violating the EU's General Data Protection Regulation to the reveal of internal company documents of Facebook by whistle-blower Ms. Frances Haugen. 

This commentary strives to analyse Facebook's Metaverse and its pitfalls, why it matters for the EU, and what's at stake.

The idea of Metaverse
The concept of Metaverse first originated in 1992 from Neal Stephenson's science fiction novel "Snow Crash." Since then, tech firms (Fortnite and Roblox) have been instrumenting it into games and have advanced in conducting virtual concerts and tournaments for people worldwide to interact. For example, Amorepacific, a South Korean Cosmetics company, engages with its customer through Metaverse, and Sony Music partnered with Roblox metaverse to hold concerts with top singers like Ariana Grande and Lil Nas X. 

Facebook's Metaverse and its pitfalls 
The Metaverse has been on Facebook's agenda for a long time and has invested heavily in virtual reality through building its Oculus headsets, VR apps for all use from hangouts, workplace to real-world interaction. Due to its investment strategy, other similar tech companies are at a loss. It claims to build the Metaverse responsibly through an investment of $50m (£36.3m) in funding non-profit groups. One of its former data scientists has recently testified that Facebook's internal research shows that its platforms augmented hate, misinformation, and political unrest. 

Despite the lack of technology and its history of being hacked, Facebook intends to go forward with the Metaverse. Hence proposing it now can be a cover to its recent fallout or to win back its name in the EU as the regulators have stressed more restrictions. It is also a warning to other tech giants such as Fortnite, Roblox, and Nvidia that have similar virtual platforms already in place. 

Why does it matter for the EU? 
The CEO proposed to recruit 10,000 workers from the EU, the factors behind choosing the region are reach to emerging talent, large consumer market, and first-class universities. The company seeks to make the EU its playfield to draft or set new rules for the new internet revolution. This looks more like a lobbying effort of the company across the particular member states of the region as the European Commission plans to lay down strict restrictions on the Social Media companies. 

Earlier this year, MEPs discussed their relationship with freedom of speech, fundamental rights, the state of media freedom in the EU as well as online disinformation campaigns. According to European Commission, Vice President Věra Jourová said that "the proposed Digital Services Act aims to increase the accountability of online platforms and clarify the rules about taking down illegal content, including hate speech and incitement to violence: We need to bring order to the digital expression of democracy and to end the digital Wild West." 

Therefore, in the case of Metaverse, the company has agreed to abide by the European regulatory measures in terms of free speech and data privacy. On the other side, it has also warned the regulators against the strict rules stating that it might lead to loss of jobs. Facebook opting for the EU is benefitting in many ways, but the stand-out factor from the US or Asian countries is the labor force of the EU. Many in the US are developers, but not all have the game engine experience. Especially in terms of legal support and experimenting, the European region will suit best than other regions. This new virtual realm in Europe is set to impact in three ways. One, it will raise the bars of the internet. Two, it will create a new order of internet rules. Three, it will develop new talent.

So what is at stake?
Rather than asking how Metaverse will turn out to be in the future, the more important question is to analyze how the (virtual reality) VR transformation will impact the EU region? What effect will it have on human behavior? Will the response of tech giants lead to a digital virtuality war?

At the regional, it may open up a new job market for virtual reality engineers in the EU, an inflow of investments, and create the potential for new start-up technologies. The EU's workforce will begin to differ at the international level, and a global internet order or legal setup for augmented reality shall emerge.

The Metaverse is said to affect lifestyle, work, business, including the functioning of governments. Human security in such a digital space will remain uncertain. Assessment of risks and challenges to human existence is more than imagination now.

Big tech companies like Nvidia Corp., Roblox Corp., Epic Games Inc., Microsoft Corp. have also built similar hardware and software for Metaverse and have created their virtual worlds. With Facebook joining the race with a stronger fist means the faster transformation of technology and the Internet. As this will instigate, the other big giants will develop their versions of the Metaverse. It will be a question of how countries compete using hypersonic missiles and how the tech giants will control the world in virtuality. Similar to world wars I and II, such high-end technologies are just beginning and will stay to transform and lead to digital colonization by the tech giants in the future.

About the author

Padmashree Anandhan is a research assistant with the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS.


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