Here’s a modern story with a magical twist. A guy goes for a walk in a forest one day and hears a musical croak. He turns around, and a frog jumps next to him. “Please pick me up and kiss me,” says the frog. “I’ll turn into a beautiful princess.”

The guy bends over, picks up the frog, places it carefully in his shirt pocket, and continues walking.

“I don’t know if you heard me,” the frog taps his chest. “If you kiss me, I’ll turn into a beautiful princess. I will tell everyone how brave you are and will be your loving companion.” The man takes the frog out of his pocket, smiles at it, and places it back into his shirt. When they get home, the frog pleads once again. “Please kiss me and make me your princess. I will be indebted to you forever.”

The guy places the frog carefully in a bowl of water. “Thanks for your offer, but no thanks. I’m a software engineer. I don’t have time for a girlfriend. But a talking frog would be a great companion.”

If that quip made you wink, this might make you think: This mythical exchange may as well have happened in the metaverse. That’s a virtual shared space of enhanced immersive experiences where humans become digital “avatars” and non-humans — animals, birds, mythical creatures — have human-like abilities to think, speak and act.

The metaverse has become part of the common lexicon, not just among tech-savvy netizens but also government officials, corporate executives and school students. Ever since Facebook Inc — the company that owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — rebranded itself as Meta on Oct 28, 2021, the metaverse has metamorphosed into a myriad of interactions in virtual worlds shared over the internet.

Mega market
How big is the metaverse market? “Global revenues could reach US$800 billion in 2024 versus about US$500 billion in 2020, based on our analysis and Newzoo, IDC, PwC, Statista and Two Circles data,” Bloomberg reported in December 2021. “The primary market for online game makers and hardware may exceed US$400 billion in 2024 while opportunities in live entertainment and social media make up the remainder.”

Gartner Inc predicts that by 2026, about 25% of people will spend at least an hour a day in the metaverse for work, shopping, education, social and entertainment. Marty Resnick, a research vice-president at Gartner, says vendors are already building ways for users to replicate their lives in digital worlds.

“From attending virtual classrooms to buying digital land and constructing virtual homes, these activities are currently being conducted in separate environments. Eventually, they will take place in a single environment — the metaverse — with multiple destinations across technologies and experiences,” he adds.

Meta defines it as a set of digital spaces, including immersive 3D experiences, that are interconnected so you can easily move between them. You do this by creating a 3D avatar of yourself. A dozen apps — such as FaceCam, Avatoon, Bitmoji, Oblik and Spatial — help you characterise yourself digitally.

“You’ll be able to experience, participate, buy and sell things to each other, and create and travel to these digital spaces — much like we do in the real world,” Meta explains. “You’ll move across these experiences on different devices, such as AR (augmented reality) glasses to stay present in the real world, VR (virtual reality) to be fully immersed, and phones and computers to jump in from existing platforms.”

For example, Singapore Tele­communications Ltd subsidiary NCS developed a demo to illustrate how the metaverse and artificial intelligence (AI) could be used for solving complex challenges and showcased a prototype during the NCS Homeland Security Forum in February.

“We used the Unity software platform and Microsoft HoloLens to demonstrate a crime scene investigation on the metaverse,” says Sam Liew, managing partner of the government strategic business group at NCS. “It took our tech partners and us about a month to develop the demo. We plan to use this learning to develop recommendation engines and generate scenarios in real time and in virtual spaces.”

So far, so good. But what about the flip side? Does the axiom — big criminals follow big money — also apply in the metaverse? Dr Toh See Kiat, chairman of Goodwins Law Corp, says the metaverse will be a 3D version of the current internet, in which individuals may be anonymous or can participate using fake identities.

Mega issues
“Personal wearable devices used in the metaverse will be constantly collecting personally identifiable information (PII) as their wearers interact with the metaverse,” says Toh. “All sorts of dangers may then arise. But it is far too early to decide what laws or contractual terms should be present in such a metaverse to prevent abuses and crimes.”

For the metaverse to deliver an authentic experience for users with safety, security and accountability, it is essential to have a robust digital identification and authentication system in place. So says Royce Wee, a former senior civil servant currently heading public policy at a tech multinational corporation.

“Laws that apply to the analogue world should, by default, also apply to the metaverse,” he says. “However, there is no standalone, specific law that applies to the metaverse that caters to its unique characteristics and the corresponding problems that may arise. There are also complexities of jurisdiction and the competency of national courts to be worked out — including getting evidence — in enforcement of judgments and in obtaining meaningful remedies across international boundaries.”

These concerns arise because the metaverse goes beyond just fun and games. “The metaverse allows for serious interaction such as meetings,” says lawyer Bryan Tan, partner at Reed Smith. “Can what you say or do be potentially held against you? Probably. It has not been tested yet. However, you’re liable for what you say or do online even now. That will apply in the metaverse. Whether you can be identified or not is a different issue.”

Meta said it is working with partners such as the National University of Singapore and the University of Hong Kong to research privacy, safety and ethics issues. The company has launched a US$50 million initiative to collaborate with civil rights groups, governments, non-profit organisations and academia to help build these technologies responsibly.

Meta says it has put guardrails in place to prevent harassment incidents. “We recently introduced a ‘personal boundary’ to help avoid unwanted interactions,” its Seattle-based product manager for VR Integrity, Bill Stillwell, said in an emailed statement. “For cross-platform apps with users connecting from other platforms, mobile phones or consoles, we provide tools that allow Quest players to report and block users. We will continue to make improvements as we learn more about how people interact in these spaces.”

The bottom line: You need to keep your anti-virus and anti-spyware tools and solutions updated, whether on the internet or the metaverse. The onus to keep your virtual self safe in the metaverse falls primarily on you, as it does with cybersecurity currently.

But what if your avatar is murdered in the metaverse? “Why should murder be allowed in the metaverse?” Wee asks.

That’s currently a rhetorical question. If your online persona is scammed, abused or murdered in the metaverse by cybercriminals, can you find out who did it and why? That would be tough with the anonymity of the internet. You would need to have the right tech skills or hire high-end tech professionals — if you can find them — to help.

You would need hard evidence — from digital forensics experts and cooperation from the MNCs that play in the metaverse — and hire lawyers to get you justice. How many of us have the time or money for this?

Even if you managed to procure the evidence, how can you haul the cybercriminal to justice if the perpetrator is based in a country with lax law enforcement? You would then need Interpol to intervene.

Finally, the metaverse is part of what’s generally referred to as Web 3.0, where information is decentralised (data would be stored in multiple locations simultaneously and not held in massive databases as it is currently under tech giants). And information can be exchanged in a blockchain or peer-to-peer model (without a central authority like a government agency controlling various aspects of the exchange). This would give users faster access to information and more control over the data they choose to share.

However, the free flow of information could lead to hate speech and fake news proliferating, especially in a decentralised structure because of the lack of central control. It would also make regulation and enforcement challenging. For instance, which laws apply to a website whose content is hosted in numerous nations? Cybercriminals could exploit cryptographic flaws and gain access to digital wallets. Recovering the money or stolen digital assets will be tricky if a breach occurs.

These are questions that governments, industry associations and businesses need to address, especially since the metaverse is projected to be a place where events can be held, deals can be made, and business meetings and networking are encouraged. Ethical and legal boundaries need to be discussed and set — including cross-border law enforcement frameworks — for the metaverse to be taken seriously by companies and individuals.

What if someone harasses or murders your avatar in the metaverse? You can block them. Meta says you can report abusive content or behaviour from inside a game, app or web tool. The moot question should be why a murder was allowed by the platform in the first place, says Wee.

The last word goes to lawyer Toh, “If you were murdered, you would no longer be able to take action. You would be dead.”