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The metaverse: a vector of sovereignty for the State?
article - 02/28/2023 by Maïté CANO, Attorney at Law and member of the Paris Bar. She works for private and public operators on public infrastructure and public service management projects. She is interested in the relationship between technology and public services, and in the issues related to sovereignty raised by the metaverse.

Even if the Metaverse is a popular buzz word, like “NFTs” or “blockchain”, Metaverse remains a fuzzy concept. 

The Metaverse is often described by its functionalities and purposes. It can thus be defined as

"an online service providing access to shared and persistent real-time 3D space simulations in which individuals can live immersive experiences together" or as "virtual spaces based on immersive technologies where users can interact in real time via avatars [...] they support the development of a genuine virtual life".

The notion of metaverse is thus associated with mainly commercial, industrial and recreational purposes, making it possible to live shared and immersive experiences that have been developed by private operators for private users who will access these experiences mainly through the use of an avatar.

In this context, questioning the relationship between metaverse and public authorities might seem anecdotal or unnecessary.

However, as the French Conseil d'Etat (State Council) points out in an annual study published in 2022, the rise of the metaverse(s) is likely to raise new legal, economic and social issues that public authorities will have to face and that should be anticipated.

In this perspective, examining the relationship between public authorities and metaverses becomes mandatory, not only because issues related to sovereignty are at stake, but also because metaverses are likely to continue the revolution brought about by social networks with the democratic and ethical challenges that they have induced.

In their relations with metaverses, public authorities could take on at least three roles which might be interdependent :

- Co-creators of one or more metaverses

- Regulators of metaverses

- User of metaverses

This approach is of course prospective and aims at providing food for thought. 

Many issues still need to be addressed.

Should public authorities participate in the creation of metaverse?

The creation of metaverses is, as for now, carried out by private operators for mainly recreational, industrial and commercial purposes; fields in which the state administrations aren’t meant to interfere.

If the participation of a public authority in the creation process of a virtual universe is not, at first sight, obvious, it is one of the suggestions of the report of the French Exploratory Mission on the Metaverse.

The study offers two suggestions: 

  • To negotiate technical standards to ensure that immersive technologies are interoperable and transparent
  • To incite public institutions to develop common and essential services that are needed for creating multiple interoperable metaverses.

The approach suggested by the report is ambitious and encourages public authorities to participate in the creation of metaverses, or more precisely, to "support and encourage players that are ahead in terms of technological bricks [...] essential to the creation of future metaverses". The report also insists on the fact that this boom in the metaverse field shouldn’t be done without any European players being involved.

Among the tools for creating those common services, the report emphasizes the importance of using public procurement and partnerships between public and private entities, while considering that the payment of subsidies to private structures would not be an appropriate mechanism.

These recommendations raise very practical questions in terms of implementation.

The legislative and regulatory frameworks of European countries are the result of the transposition of European directives. Is public procurement appropriate for this new field? Should related regulations be modified at national and European levels? How will a state administration be able to conclude public contracts to work on these technological bricks?

Beyond that, it will be necessary to question the limits of such participation, which could remind us of prospective novel or science fiction literature examples. It will also be necessary to conceive means for public authorities to oversee this new field.

What regulation should public authorities enforce for metaverses?

As for social networks, the regulation of metaverses will be a key issue for public authorities. In its annual report published in 2022, the French Conseil d'Etat (State Council) stresses, on one hand, the need to regulate and, on the other hand, the need to anticipate the rise of more in-depth forms of virtual universes, such as metaverses.

Regarding this specific point, the report of the French Exploratory Mission invites public authorities to promptly prepare the evolution of European regulations (General Data Protection Regulation, Digital Market Regulation with the DMA, Digital Services Regulation with the DSA). In addition to environmental and public health issues, regulation by public authorities will also have to deal with the legal framework of the Metaverse, including issues related to intellectual property, criminal offenses, land ownership and personal data protection.

More broadly, the metaverse raises a series of questions about the ability of states to regulate a metaverse. How can public authorities justify intervening in a virtual universe? 

The metaverse also raises sensitive issues regarding the ability of a state’s public authorities to intervene regarding territoriality rules (state borders, delimitation of a geographical and functional perimeter). How can we transpose rules existing in the "real" world to this new area?

This would bring practical questions in terms of implementation, if we assume that the metaverse is the continuity of the real world. Would it be necessary to imagine the acquisition by public institutions of lands inside a metaverse? With what currency? How can we identify the users of these virtual universes?

The regulation enforced by public authorities will be all the more important if public institutions intend to invest in the metaverse and offer public services via this new medium.

How can metaverses be a tool to help us rethink public action?

If we assume that metaverses will grow, would it be appropriate for public authorities to intervene in one or more virtual universes?

Using a virtual space offering immersive experiences may beseem limited in terms of jurisdiction. 

However, it should be highlighted that since the early 2000s, states have organized the dematerialization of administrative procedures and public services. South Korea, for example, has announced that important investments to provide administrative services will be made in the metaverse.

We can thus wonder whether the integration of a State and local authorities in the metaverse could be the continuation of the dematerializing process of public services that started years ago. 

To go further, the question can also be extended to the need, in order to respect the principle of continuity of public service, to invest in the Metaverse so as to ensure the continuation of public service within this new space.

This integration would require administrations to find a careful balance between several issues, especially ethical and legal:

  • Administrative procedures could be carried out in the metaverse, via one's avatar. This would require a framework and a digital identity system for the users of the public service to enable their necessary identification.
  • Is this an opportunity or a gimmick? In addition to the environmental and energy consumption issues related to the functioning of metaverses, the question of the place of the human being within them is paramount. Indeed,setting up public services within the Metaverse could accentuate the exclusion of public services, which has already been observed as a result of their dematerialization (see the latest report of the French Defender of Rights on this point).

The rise of one or more metaverses hence raises many ethical, legal and political questions that will have to be taken into account by public authorities, at a national and European levels.

The three roles of the public authorities submitted hereinabove might be interdependent, especially because the involvement of public institutions in the definition of technical standards and common services could facilitate regulation as well as the reflection regarding the role public institutions should have in metaverses.

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