Metaverses are coming, but who owns your avatar?

metaverse avatar
Image by Julia Tim | Bigstockphoto

When you create your metaverse avatar, who owns it? Is it yours, or does the platform own it? This question is very fundamental for the future of digital services and human rights. It’s also a very practical and technical question in terms of how we build these platforms and databases.

Microsoft announced its metaverse plans immediately after Facebook did. That shouldn’t be a surprise – many other companies are already planning on building a metaverse, or at least components for a metaverse. Indeed, if we look back, there have been different kinds of virtual reality plans for years.

When you ‘enter’ a metaverse, you have a digital version of yourself that basically serves as your representative there. Whether you call it an avatar, a digital twin, a digital ‘you’ or whatever, basically it is still a digital character that represents you in a metaverse or digital reality. It might have your behavior and your look. It can also utilize your data – perhaps even when you are offline. In a way, it is your digital copy that lives based on your data.

In one of my earlier data analytics companies, we had a slogan (it was over ten years ago!): “live your data”. People didn’t really get it, and we had to change it. Our idea was that data actually guides your life, whether you apply for a loan or credit card, and even determines how service providers treat you.

That concept was probably too early then. But when you think about your avatar in a metaverse, we can really say that it lives your data.

Your data and the digital you

Your avatar is nothing without your data. When you share your photos, height and weight, it can start to resemble you. Suppose it has your internet browsing history and purchase history. In that case, it knows what you are interested in buying and where to go. Or, suppose it can access your social media and communications data. Then it knows with whom you want to spend time and what you prefer talking about with different friends. With your finance data, it also knows its purchase power. With your health and wearable data, it knows your health and physical condition.

This is nothing new, of course. Many online services have this data already, which is one of the main reasons for the ongoing privacy debate. But an avatar makes these things more concrete. If your avatar is your digital character representing you and interacting with other people and services, the value and meaning of the data become very tangible. It is not only some bits in a database in a cloud. Things get actually done based on your data.

We can take a step forward to services where your personal AI-powered avatar can do things independently on your behalf – or for someone who wants to control you. So we can see it definitely matters what kind of data your avatar uses, because it is you in the digital space.

Who owns your avatar?

Then we have to ask even more fundamental questions. Who really owns your avatar? Is it Meta (Facebook), Microsoft or another metaverse service provider? Who can access its data, who can control it and can someone delete (or should we say kill) it? Furthermore, this takes us beyond the issue of data – it opens a new track on digital rights. How should we handle intellectual property rights and ownership rights in the metaverse?

From a legal point of view, there is already an ongoing discussion about how some traditional legal and philosophical theories help to specify data ownership based, for example, on labor theory, personality theory or incentive approach. The legal discussion among regulators has its own track. But it is not the only relevant question. We must also think about how these platforms really work, where the data lives, how we ‘build’ avatars and who builds them.

It’s not hard to imagine that some metaverse companies envision (and are planning for) a future where you would spend most of your digital in their metaverse. You would go there to read newspapers, watch movies, purchase goods, find your life partner, work, keep your money in digital wallets and banks and share time with your friends. Those who own the dominating metaverse platforms would really become superpowers of your data.

Meta may get you to live in its metaverse and do most if not all of your digital activities there. Actually, your Facebook data is only a small subset of the data in their metaverse. Mark Zuckerberg has already promoted VR fitness apps as part of his metaverse. Plans are already being made to move many sports activities to virtual realities and metaverses. One could say they are an excellent first step to porting your wellness and health data there – when you exercise, you will likely share your wearable data with the service.

This is not a simple topic, and nowadays, we’re only seeing the first steps – or maybe only the plans for the first steps. But we cannot avoid a reality in which digital rights and ownership reach a totally new phase where we can compare them to physical rights and ownership. Who owns the land? Where are you allowed to walk and enter? What are your human rights in respect to your family and private life, your home and your communications?

How shall we build the metaverse?

We can also start to build these metaverses from two very different angles. One approach is where the platform collects all your data and creates an avatar for you, and for that specific metaverse. Another – and totally opposite – approach is a model where you have your own data and create your own avatar based on the data you choose to include. Then, your avatar can visit different metaverses to do things and share information you would like to share in the physical world.

We are living in the early days of metaverses now, but it does matter which track we take to build them. This is partly a technical question: who should create new metaverse worlds and keep the data, and how should they be built? However, it is a question for lawmakers and regulators too. Your avatar might still sound entirely fictional. But we will see the first ones very soon, and the early results of that can shape the direction of this development for a long time.

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