View from Brussels: EU wants a better metaverse

The European Union is keeping an eye on the development of digital worlds known as metaverses and is already working on guidelines for tech companies about what principles their universes should follow.

Brussels is slowly but surely getting its regulatory game together when it comes to the digital sector, gradually fulfilling the EU’s ambition to be ‘rulemaker not a ruletaker’.

GDPR is arguably the global standard on data protection, the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act are already establishing themselves as benchmarks and new rules on cryptocurrencies have recently been adopted.

High-profile court cases against Google and Apple have also shown that Brussels is not rolling over for Big Tech. Now, regulators are looking at another fledgling technology that the industry says is going to be the next big thing: the metaverse.

‘Metaverse’ is already synonymous with Facebook, as the social media giant has launched its own digital universe where users can hold meetings, meet new people and exist virtually in the same space as other inhabitants of the online world.

But it is in fact not alone in offering a virtual space, as several metaverses are currently under development. The EU has taken note of that and has promised to come up with a new initiative next year, in a bid to regulate the sector.

During her annual speech on the state of the EU, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen found time to talk about the digital world in between reaffirming the EU’s support for Ukraine and assuring people that the energy crisis will be tamed.

“We will continue looking at new digital opportunities and trends, such as the metaverse,” von der Leyen wrote in a letter of intent that accompanied the speech, which is a major clue about what the EU will focus on in the coming year.

Her head of digital affairs, France’s Thierry Breton, has already outlined his own guidelines for what metaverse developers should bear in mind when setting up their digital worlds. That thinking is likely to feed into official EU business.

“This new virtual environment must embed European values from the outset. People should feel as safe in virtual worlds as they do in the real one,” Breton, a former telecoms CEO, wrote in a recent LinkedIn post.

Breton also insists that metaverses should buck the trend of existing social media platforms and be interoperable with one another. Common standards should also apply and a body has already been established to do just that.

Tech experts worry that companies like Meta and Google will be able to pull the same tricks they have done in the past when it comes to standard-setting by either unduly influencing the process or simply ignoring norms due to lack of proper enforcement.

However, experience gained from setting up the DMA and DSA also leads Breton to insist that “we have also learned a lesson from this work: we will not witness a new Wild West or new private monopolies.”

Another way for the EU to be a rulemaker not a ruletaker in this particular sphere is to have domestic companies at the forefront of the sector, which it has lacked in recent years beyond outliers like Spotify.

That is why Brussels hopes to get ahead of the curve and boost investment in 5G, semiconductor manufacturing, cloud technology and more, so that in-house players can lead the way. A virtual reality coalition was launched last week, aimed at doing just that.

Breton has also issued a call to the telecoms industry to increase or at least maintain investments in supporting connectivity infrastructure, so that the added pressures of innovations like the metaverse can indeed be managed.

It is yet another sector in which Europe has a lot of potential to set the rules and dictate policy. But, again, money makes the digital world go around as well as the real one, so it remains to be seen how much of a player Brussels can actually end up being.

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