On 28 October 2021, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and majority shareholder of Facebook (now Meta apparently) announced this thing called the Metaverse, a ripped off concept from countless science fiction books that, according to Wikipedia, is:
The idea, then, is to create virtual worlds for the internet. This mimics early representations of the internet that showed virtual reality navigation and hypothesized a world akin to our own in which internet addresses could be navigated much the same way as a street address, by driving or walking or flying through streets and down laneways. I remember in the early 1990s reading about how the internet would develop into this in a matter of years.
Now, thirty years later, Zuckerberg has decided to make this vision a reality. But what works in America may not work in other parts of the world, nor be particularly well adapted to different cultures. As I’m a lawyer in Vietnam and working with tech law, I have to wonder whether Zuckerberg’s Metaverse will be able to operate in Vietnam and what some of the legal implications might be if it tries.
The first thing that comes to mind relates to the hit song “Baby Shark.” How will a virtual reality world be perceived when it is hindered by an underwater internet cable that is constantly beset by fiberoptic hungry sharks? There is simply not enough bandwidth to provide a fully rendered three dimensional world for every user of the internet in much of the developing world, Vietnam included. The infrastructure has to be improved before something like this can even begin to be contemplated. Sure, Vietnamese telecoms are pushing forward with a commercial 5G network, but that only applies to phones and SIM cards, not to wi-fi or LANs. How will the virtual reality displays be linked to the internet and how will they be able to push that much data through spotty networks?
The second thing that comes to mind relates to the Weird Al Yankovic parody of Michael Jackson’s “I’m Bad” in which he sang about the fact that he was “Fat”. By turning the internet into a virtual world, where everything is visually represented and essentially akin to a video game, the Metaverse will be encouraging an already alarming trend towards sedentary lifestyles. Vietnam is no exception to the increasing obesity problem facing developed countries and children who are already gorged on fast food and processed sugar who walk around like pudgy marshmallow puffs in too tight t-shirts will only continue to gain weight as they learn that they can be entertained while conducting activities that most of us currently accomplish with a simple internet search. Not only will fat accrue, like interest on a payday loan, but addictions that bring with them mental health problems such as depression and anxiety and paranoia will follow as well. If the Metaverse takes off in Vietnam then the country will be faced with a pandemic of low level mental health crises that it is ill equipped to handle. Vietnam has a dismal mental health care system and even struggles to acknowledge that mental health even exists. I’ve heard stories of schizophrenics being taken to exorcists or being encouraged to talk to the dead and used as Carnivalesque attractions for their parents to make money. If Vietnam is going to invite a major cause of mental health problems into its borders, then it needs to modernize its beliefs and healthcare system accordingly, otherwise there will be entire generations of mentally ill children and youth and eventually adults who are unable to function as productive members of society.
Those are practical problems, there are numerous legal issues as well. The biggest, perhaps, the question of data. Virtual reality devices, as conceived currently, will likely collect a great deal of data from their users. As these devices will be worn, there will be several vital data collected, such as location, movements, physical reactions, vital signs, etc. Much of this information is currently under contemplation as “sensitive personal data” and will require a much greater call for consent than non-sensitive personal data. Will there be regular stop signs along the road of the Metaverse signaling instances requiring consent? I can imagine a car driving along an expressway and about to take an exit that leads to a new vendor. That vendor will require the personal data collected by the virtual reality devices and may not have previously been contemplated by existing consents. Will the Metaverse be able to build in toll booths (of a sort) that will stop the users and request their additional consent prior to letting them off the expressway?
And where, exactly, is the Metaverse? This personal data will be constantly updated and shared with vendors and virtual locations in real time. Even the yet to be adopted draft decree on personal data protection requires a great deal of paperwork prior to allowing data collected from Vietnamese citizens to be transferred across the jurisdictional border. If the Metaverse is international, how will the transfer of such data be controlled and permissions be obtained? Vietnam’s laws are no where near sophisticated enough to handle the myriad issues that will arise from a virtual reality internet.
Finally, and back to a practical point, it is likely that a virtual reality world will undermine the fine heritage and culture of many countries. Vietnam is a country where there is a great deal of respect for parents and leadership (largely stemming from a Confucian inculcation in the 15th Century under the Hong Duc Reign Era). Will a Metaverse where hours and hours of the day are spent in a virtual world where there are no links to the family and culture that exists in reality have an an even more adverse affect on youthful manners than video games already have? If in America video games are deemed to be largely responsible for some of the worst cases of student involved violence, do we really want to accept this idea as an import into a country that has respectably low levels of violence and crime and a high level of civil obedience?
Would we not be better served to spend the time and the money that would go into turning the internet into a fancy three-dimensional world on saving the environment, or on feeding the poor and housing the homeless? Aren’t there more pressing, more real, problems facing us today that could be solved with the trillions of dollars that are about to be spent on virtual reality? And that’s not even addressing the ethical issues of trying to replace physical reality with virtual reality. The advertising that will be even more intrusive and more abusive than it already is. The violations of privacy and the promotion of negative images and activities (however you choose to define them). The countless crimes that will be committed.
Call me jaded, but I see a much more Phillip K. Dick world coming from this direction of development than anything that Gene Rodenberry might ever have imagined. I’m not a Luddite, but I don’t think the Metaverse is going to end well for anyone, let alone Vietnam.