The EU executive will present next year an initiative on the metaverse, the latest virtual reality space for users to interact, as announced on Wednesday (14 September).
Currently, several metaverses are under development beyond the one promoted by Meta (Facebook’s parent company), where digital platforms promise to offer new possibilities for people to interact in real-time and across distances with a more immersive experience.
“We will continue looking at new digital opportunities and trends, such as the metaverse,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a letter of intent that accompanied her State of the Union annual speech.
One of the key new initiatives for 2023 as part of a Europe fit for the digital age is an initiative on virtual worlds, such as the metaverse. Creating such virtual spaces prompts some questions that are difficult for regulators and legislators to answer, as this future development for a three-dimension version of the Internet is still in its infancy.
Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for the internal market, put forward three crucial aspects for promoting such virtual worlds in a LinkedIn post.
First and foremost, he emphasized the human component, as the metaverse should be centered on Europe’s values and rules.
“This new virtual environment must embed European values from the outset. People should feel as safe in the virtual worlds as they do in the real one,” Breton wrote.
Although Mark Zuckerberg’s metaverse first comes to mind, no single private actor should hold the key to public space or set its terms, Breton said. There should also be interoperable standards developed by private metaverses.
An organisation working on standards that would ensure metaverse interoperability has already been established. However, concerns remain that dominant players will continue to replicate the so-called ‘walled gardens’ they use in their platforms to keep the users locked in.
Breton also referred to the EU’s Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, stating that the bloc already has “strong and future-proof regulatory tools for the digital space”.
Rather than entering an unregulated world of chaos, metaverses shall become safe spaces, and the standards shall be developed through a collaborative effort, he stressed.
“We will launch a creative and interdisciplinary movement, aiming to develop standards, increase interoperability, maximising impact with the help of IT experts, regulatory experts, citizens’ organisations and youth,” Breton wrote.
Although the metaverse promises great commercial opportunities, it raises a number of questions that regulators and legislators are having a hard time answering as this future evolution of the Internet is still at a very early stage.
Second, Europe’s ability to impact virtual worlds will also depend on its strength in developing cutting-edge technologies and building a sustainable ecosystem, said Breton, who is considered one of the main drivers pushing for the EU’s technological sovereignty.
While industry stakeholders regularly express concerns about the skills gap and Europe’s incapacity to attract skilled workers in the IT sector, Breton believes that skilled workers and researchers are Europe’s strong asset.
“An ecosystem is already growing throughout Europe: in Italy, Latvia, France, Germany, Finland and elsewhere, made of big players as well as innovative SMEs,” Breton emphasizes.
On Wednesday, the Commissioner launched the Virtual and Augmented Reality Industrial Coalition with 40 companies to connect stakeholders from crucial metaverse technologies.
With a roadmap and investments in photonics, semiconductors or new materials, the Commission aims to build the foundation for this ecosystem. Breton acknowledged that a mix of private, national, and EU funding would be necessary.
As capital markets are becoming more mature in several European countries, the new challenge for startups is securing talent. Still, remote working, business solutions and upcoming EU policies could disrupt the landscape.
Third, the metaverses will add to the pressure on the connectivity infrastructure needed to enable new developments, such as new payment systems or forms of identification.
“The amount of data being exchanged – and harvested – through these technologies will be of greater magnitude than ever,” Breton said.
As higher volumes of data are being exchanged, the Commissioner observed that there might be “decreasing revenues and appetite to invest to strengthen [the infrastructures] and make them resilient”.
For the benefit of all Europeans, the Commissioner thus calls on the market players profiting from the digital transformation to contribute fairly to public goods, services and infrastructures, hereby making for the first time a link to his initiative to make online platforms contribute to the cost of digital infrastructure.
With support from European telecom providers, Breton is pushing to introduce the ‘senders-pay’ principle. The proposal was initially announced for the end of the year, but the public consultation has been postponed to the start of 2023, the former CEO of France Télécom said in an interview with Le Monde on 9 September.