One expert said China Mobile’s proposal to bring surveillance to the metaverse sounds ‘a lot like’ the nation’s controversial social credit system.
There are many reasons why people use Web3. For some, it’s the freedom to create and sell creative work and services without intermediaries; for others, it’s the opportunity to invest in decentralised projects that radically subvert everything we previously knew about ownership.
For many though, particularly those disillusioned with the data surveillance economy of Web2, Web3 offers genuine privacy.
In China, this may be changing. China Mobile, a state-owned telecoms operator, has put forward a proposal that closely echoes the country’s controversial social credit system which monitors citizen’s actions and assigns them a social credit score.
The proposals, first reported by POLITICO, put forward a ‘digital identity system’ for all metaverse users. This digital identity relies upon personal data, such as the person’s job, to record the ”natural characteristics” and “social characteristics” of every user, the report outlines.
This data would then be “permanently” stored and shared with law enforcement in order to “keep the order and safety of the virtual world.”
The proposal gives an eerie example of this system in action through the character of ‘Tom’, an individual who “spreads rumours and makes chaos in the metaverse”. With the digital identity system in place, Chinese police would be able to accurately identify scandalous Tom – the spreader of ‘rumours and chaos’ – and punish him in the real world for his actions.
Such a proposal might sound nightmarishly dystopian, but the implementation isn’t set in stone just yet. The proposals are part of discussions between tech experts and officials at the United Nations’ telecoms agency, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
Independent experts at POLITICO said that the proposal to implement a digital ID system into the metaverse “risks violating principles of privacy and freedom to connect that have become hallmarks of the internet as most Western citizens know it”.
Chris Kremidas-Courtney, a senior fellow at Brussels think tank Friends of Europe, told POLITCO: “To build a unified digital identity system, to give each human a unique digital ID that includes social characteristics from social media and occupation— that sounds a lot like China’s social credit system.”
China’s social credit system is designed to reward socially favourable behaviour and punish unfavourable or ‘unethical’ behaviours. The system monitors financial actions, such as timeliness of debt payments and taxes, as well as social interactions such as who engages with who. It even takes into consideration health factors, such as whether a person smokes, and whether they smoke in public.
Punishments for those with low social credit scores include bans on travel, limited job prospects, exclusion from public services and more.
A different tech expert contributing to the the ITU metaverse focus group told POLITCO that Chinese companies and organisations are filing more proposals than Western participants, potentially giving Beijing a long-term edge.
“They are trying to play the long game,” the anonymous expert said. “When the metaverse comes around, they’ll say, ‘these are the standards'”.
They added: “Imagine a metaverse where your identity protocols are set and monitored by Chinese authorities. Every government must ask themselves – Is that the kind of immersive world we want to live in?”
The proposal is set to be voted on in October. If accepted, the changes could majorly disrupt the metaverse industry.
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