Ethics in the Metaverse
“It’s a ‘wild west’ right now, and so the question is, how’s it going to be regulated? How responsible are companies going to be?”
In Fall of 2021, Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would be changing its name to Meta and would pour time, resources and capital in developing its new virtual reality platform. Meta is not alone, other major technology companies including Microsoft, Apple, Nvidia, Epic Games and a half dozen more are making major investments in developing VR platforms for the new metaverse.
These technologies are celebrated for their endless possibilities and ability to immerse users in virtual yet “safe” spaces. We must remember, however, that users are real people and just like in the real world, people can be harmed in virtual spaces. However, incidents have emerged illustrating that the risks present in our tangible world are mimicked in virtual spaces. These technologies—as they are currently being adopted—perpetuate the same hostility, harassment, and bullying of marginalized people and communities that we find in other social and cultural spaces.
We argue that the creators of these worlds must construct strong codes of ethics to maintain safe environments and protect those individuals and communities who are relatively more vulnerable and hold less power in cultural spaces.
In a best-case scenario, all the companies that are establishing a platform for the metaverse would identify core values and put together a code of ethics and robust ethics program. Our hope in proposing a code here is to serve as a starting point for conversation about what might be included in such a code. A code of ethics might also be seen as twofold in this case. One purpose is to help a company identify important principles that will guide decision-making, design and maintenance of a metaverse. The second would be to help guide standards and practice for the users of the metaverse. The points made here might serve as a starting point for either or both.
A Code of Ethics for the Metaverse
There are seven points in this suggested code. Ideally, a code should be both broad and brief. If a code cannot be articulated on, say, a single page, there is a risk users will never refer to it. With brevity though, comes the risk of superficiality. We try to walk the fine line between these two.
- Show Respect—Treat others with respect and dignity. Though you see avatars on the screen in many forms and fashion, behind each avatar is a real human being and should be treated as such. People are never a means to an end but have inherent value themselves.
- Tell the Truth—People in virtual settings may take on different roles or identities for gaming, roleplay, or personal reasons. However, if you are playing a role, you should let others know. Your life is your business, but we do not endorse lying, misleading or willfully deceiving others.
- Do no Harm—Take no actions in the metaverse you know or suspect might harm another person or group of people. Anticipate how your actions might impact others, as best you can. Mitigate harm and work for good.
- Show Concern—In your actions and words in the metaverse, consistently show care and concern for other people. Concern and care for others is rooted in relationships and listening. Are you showing empathy for others? Do you have an appreciation for the interest, feelings, and viewpoints of others?
- Work for Good—Do not enable bad behavior. If you witness abuse or harassment, speak up, report it, and do not be silent. Does your behavior help make you a better person? Is this action I am taking, or are these words I am speaking consistent with acting my best? Are my efforts demonstrating mutual concern for the shared interests of all members of a community?
- Demonstrate Tolerance—Acknowledge cultural difference and be open and receptive to its beauty. Respect and appreciate the culture and ideas of others, and work toward mutual understanding.
- Respect Privacy—Do not collect information and data from other metaverse citizens and disseminate it without their consent. Have I respected other people’s right to keep certain information to themselves?
View, print, or download: "A Code of Ethics for the Metaverse."
Don Heider, executive director, interviewed by NewsNation.
Don Heider, executive director at the Markkula Center for Applied ethics, quoted on NBC Bay Area.
Heider is the chief executive of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, one of the most active ethics centers in the United States, with programs in business ethics, government ethics, journalism ethics, engineering ethics, technology ethics health care ethics, and many others.
Formerly, Heider was the associate provost for strategy & innovation and dean of the School of Communication at Loyola University in Chicago. He also was the founder of the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola. He served as associate dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at University of Maryland, College Park, and as associate professor of journalism at University of Texas, Austin.
Heider began his career as a TV journalist and received five Emmy awards for his work. He is the author or editor of seven books including A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics and Ethics for a Digital Age, Volumes 1 and 2.
Journal Articles by Heider
Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies: Ethical harm in virtual communities
Interdisciplinary Advancements in Gaming, Simulations, and Virtual Environments: Emerging Trends: Friendship, Closeness, and Disclosure in Second Life
The Routledge Handbook of Positive Communication: Happiness and Digital Ethics
Media Commentary by Heider
Modern Professional: Metaverse Exposure and Protection with Don Heider
Venture Beat: Why the Metaverse must be open but regulated
NBC Bay Area: Inside the Metaverse: Privacy and Security Concerns
For More Information
The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics staff and affiliated scholars can provide commentary and background information for media on a variety of issues pertaining to the Metaverse, virtual communities and social media.