Virtual worlds for everyone

24. April 2023
European Commission

The Metaverse is a vision of the internet of the future. It aims to unite the real and virtual worlds in a single environment. Users can work, play, meet or shop there as avatars. In an EU Citizens' Panel, randomly selected citizens from all over the European Union have developed visions, principles and measures for the development of virtual worlds.

At the invitation of the EU Commission, 150 randomly selected citizens met three times to consider how virtual worlds in the EU can be designed for the benefit of the people.

"Embodiment of the internet"

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg talks about the Metaverse as an "embodiment of the internet". Users do not look at a screen, but move around the metaverse with the help of appropriate virtual reality glasses. Everything we do on a screen today is possible virtually in three dimensions.

Metaverse users could meet friends, attend meetings, play games or shop in the Internet of the future. Users appear as avatars in the virtual world and interact with each other. Or friends appear as holograms in our own living room.

"Exploiting the potential of this change"

The term "metaverse" comes from the 1992 science fiction novel "Snow Crash", in which author Neal Stephenson tells of a parallel world in which people live as avatars.

The European Union wants to react early to this new technological development. " The EU and its Members States are committed to harness the potential of this transformation, understand its opportunities, but also the risks and challenges it poses, while safeguarding the rights of European citizens," it says on the EU Commission's website.

Eight basic principles

The recommendations of the Citizens' Panel adopted on 23 April 2023 are preceded by eight basic principles. For example, the use of virtual worlds should be a free decision of the individual - without disadvantages for those who do not use this offer. The panel participants attach importance to environmental friendliness in the construction and use of virtual worlds. The needs, rights and expectations of users should be respected in the technological development and regulation of virtual worlds.

The physical and mental health of people should be the cornerstone of the development and use of virtual worlds. Education, awareness and skills for the use of virtual worlds should be at the centre of the development of this technology. The European Union shall ensure the protection of user data and prevent its manipulation and theft.

Transparency shall protect users, their personal data and their mental and physical health. The use of data obtained by third parties in the virtual worlds should also be made transparent. Last but not least, the Citizens' Panel calls for equal accessibility of technology for all citizens - regardless of age, income, technical skills, country, etc.

23 recommendations

23 recommendations follow for the individual topics. For example, based on the existing labour market legislation of the member states, the legislation for virtual worlds should be examined and, where necessary, adapted and harmonised. In order to achieve the goal of equality and integration of all Europeans, it is recommended that education and training should be financed at European level and harmonised throughout the European Union.

The EU should regularly review and update its existing guidelines for ethics and technology standards and adapt their application to the virtual worlds. European co-financing for the development of sustainable and user-oriented construction and expansion of virtual worlds is also recommended.

Cooperation between business, science and the EU

Business, scientists and the EU should work closely together to drive and regulate the development of virtual worlds in line with EU values. In doing so, an EU institution or body should issue and verify certificates for virtual worlds and persons on the basis of EU values.

The Citizens' Panel would like to see a standardised and user-friendly procedure that ensures data transparency (who collects the data, what is it used for, how is it stored and with whom is it shared), with explicit permission to use.

Establishment of a police unit

For monitoring purposes, an international police unit with specialised and trained officers is to be established, which will cooperate with other units such as Europol and national agencies. Artificial intelligence is also to be used in monitoring and fighting crime.

Teachers are to be trained in the practical use of digital tools, educated about risks, safety and ethics in the virtual worlds and informed about new teaching opportunities through virtual worlds. All EU citizens should have free and easy access to important information about digital tools and virtual worlds.

Environmental protection

Regarding the impact on the environment, the participants of the Citizens' Panel recommend developing measures to raise awareness of the environmental impact of virtual worlds and to ensure that technical equipment is recyclable. By law, companies should be required to produce recyclable/repairable equipment and limit problems with obsolescence. An incentive and penalty system for equipment manufacturers should effectively accompany the legislation.

With regard to health, the Citizens' Panel recommends a research programme on the effects of virtual worlds on human health. It also suggests the introduction of a measurement system for the social, environmental, physical and psychological effects of the use of virtual worlds.

Guide to good behaviour

The EU is to formulate good rules for behaviour in virtual worlds with a guide. Businesses will be offered "terms and conditions" to ensure the security of personal data and transparency for citizens.

An infrastructure plan shall ensure equal access to digital technologies for all EU citizens. This plan should focus on affordable and accessible development for all. All EU citizens should be able to access and use the possibilities of the Metaverse according to their needs, desires and interests.

EU as a strong actor and pioneer

For the EU level, a regulation is proposed for when one has to state one's identity when using virtual worlds and when one can remain anonymous in the digital world. Clear legal frameworks should be based on ongoing research into the safe and positive use of the metaverse.

The final recommendation is that EU Member States should join together to become a strong common actor and leader in the control, monitoring and regulation of virtual worlds in order to preserve the EU's democratic values and pass them on to other countries.

EU Commission developed initiative

On 11 July 2023, the European Commission adopted in College the EU’s initiative related to Web 4.0 and virtual worlds, largely inspired by the 23 recommendations put forward by the Panel. Annexed to this policy proposal, a new type of document: the Citizens’ Report, which is the concrete expression of the “embedding” of the citizens’ panel format in the policy-making process. It contains the list of recommendations of the Panel and a first analysis. It is attached to the proposal and therefore also sent in the “legislative” package to the two other institutions.

The participants of the Citizens' Panel on Virtual Worlds were randomly selected by an independent opinion research company. In order to reflect the diversity of people in the EU, the members of the Citizens' Panel were mixed according to the criteria of geographical origin (nationality and urban/rural), gender, age, socio-economic background and level of education so that they represented a reflection of the EU population.

Young Europeans over-represented

These criteria were supplemented by a question on the attitudes of those drawn to the EU, so that EU critics were as adequately represented in the Citizens' Panel as EU supporters, according to their share of the population. Young people between 16 and 25 were over-represented. They made up one third of the participants. A gender balance was also maintained.

The Citizens' Panel met for three sessions. These took place in Brussels from 24 - 26 February, online from 10 - 12 March 2023 and again in Brussels from 21 - 23 April 2023. The recommendations that emerged here are intended to support the Commission's work in the field of virtual worlds.

The Citizens' Panel was organised and moderated by experts from The Danish Board of Technology (DBT), deliberativa, ifok and Missions Publiques. These four investee companies brought their long experience in organising mini publics to the panel.

Citizens' Panel follows up on citizens' recommendations

The Citizens' Panel is a direct result of the Conference on the Future of Europe. At this conference, 800 randomly selected citizens from all over the EU also discussed the further development of democracy in the European Union. One of the recommendations that emerged was the wish to use randomly selected citizens' panels on a regular basis in the EU. The EU institutions have followed this request.

Prior to the Citizens' Panel on Virtual Worlds, a panel on food waste already took place from December 2022 to February 2023. Another Citizens' Panel on Learning Mobility in the EU ran in March and April 2023.

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