Several years ago, I took my kid to see Disney’s animated film Ralph Breaks the Internet, which tells the story of Ralph, the protagonist of an arcade game who discovers a Wi-Fi router in the arcade that leads him into a game-jumping adventure across arcade machines within the cyberworld.
At the time, I thought the plot was overly dramatic and too removed from reality. Surprisingly, just a few years later, high-tech giants such as Microsoft and Google are one after another devoting resources to “metaverse” technology.
Last month, Facebook even changed its name to Meta Platforms, or Meta for short, while leading sports brands, such as Nike, are rushing to enter the domain, as they forecast the dawn of a new “metaverse era.”
While the development potential of metaverse technology is exciting, there are concerns about possible legal disputes that could arise from such technology, and questions as to whether domestic laws could deal with them. In terms of civil lawsuits, the judicial system could be faced with several problems as the metaverse era nears.
First, the metaverse is a 3D virtual world where space constraints among different online platforms are broken down. As the metaverse grows and barriers are removed, the number of global users in the 3D virtual world is expected to rise. Thus, the metaverse can be thought of as a platform for exchange and interaction that gathers a massive number of users.
This raises the question: If victims of cyberfraud or cyberattacks claim compensation, how would the judiciary be able to confirm their virtual identity? Furthermore, which countries’ laws would apply?
Earlier this month, Microsoft chief executive officer Satya Nadella said in an interview with Bloomberg TV that he once used the company’s own metaverse to visit a COVID-19 ward in a UK hospital, a Toyota manufacturing plant and even the International Space Station.
If a lawsuit involved people traveling virtually through cyberspace, how should we define judicial powers and criminal jurisdiction?
Second, the metaverse is becoming popular because of the huge business opportunities behind the technology. Naturally, a monetary system will emerge to support its operations. Would transactions made inside the metaverse be viewed as securities, merchandise or money? If transactions occur outside of the fiat money system, would they enjoy “legal tender” status?
Finally, a characteristic of decentralized “blockchain” technology is that it allows all participants within a blockchain network to collaborate and share; therefore, blockchain technology is expected to become a key foundation of the metaverse.
For example, transaction data of a cryptocurrency such as bitcoin are recorded in a series of “blocks,” without a central server responsible for recordkeeping. Instead, bitcoin “miners” on the computer network can add new blocks of transaction data to the blockchain once they successfully verify the legitimacy of the transactions. Thus, the miners serve as “packers” of transaction data, while a copy of the ledger is stored at each and every “node” of the network.
As it would likely be difficult to have blockchain users in the metaverse register using their real identities, who would be in a position to provide evidence to establish “burden of proof” in a transactional dispute? Would Article 344 and subsequent articles of the Code of Civil Procedure (民事訴訟法) — which pertains to duties and the inspection of documentary evidence by an involved party or third person — be sufficient in such a dispute?
If the arrival of the metaverse era is inevitable, the legal principles of “non-retroactivity” and the “principle of legality” might hamper judicial oversight of the metaverse. As a member of the judiciary wedded to the centrality of the rule of law, I hope that lawmakers will tackle the issue head-on and promptly develop the necessary legislation.
Chen Wan-yu is a Chiayi District Court judge.
Translated by Eddy Chang
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