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China looks to utilize the metaverse

China wants to define how a new, promising technology called the metaverse works — and it is pushing proposals that bear an eerie resemblance to the country’s controversial social credit systems, proposals reviewed by POLITICO showed.

The proposals, drafted by the state-owned telecoms operator China Mobile, floated a “Digital Identity System” for all users of online virtual worlds, or metaverses. They recommended that the digital ID should work with “natural characteristics” and “social characteristics” that include a range of personal data points like people’s occupation, “identifiable signs” and other attributes. They also suggested this information be “permanently” stored and shared with law enforcement “to keep the order and safety of the virtual world.”

The proposals even provides the example of a noxious user called Tom — an ideal stand-in for whoever uses the fledgling technology, for instance for gaming or socializing — who “spreads rumors and makes chaos in the metaverse”; the digital identity system would allow the police to promptly identify and punish him.

The proposals are part of discussions between tech experts and officials at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ telecoms agency that sets global rules for how technology works.

Chinese public and private actors have sought to set global standards on fledgling technologies at the ITU — a strategy that Western officials have previously warned about as China seeks to promote a government-controlled version of the internet and telecommunications. Western officials already rang the alarm in 2020 over similar attempts by Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to rewrite how internet protocols, a key building block of global internet traffic, work.

The metaverse is often described as an emerging network of connected, immersive virtual worlds powered by virtual reality, augmented reality and on-screen simulations. Its early applications include online video games, video-conferencing and virtual live events. The concept has the strong backing of United States-based tech giant Meta, which in 2021 even rebranded from its earlier name Facebook to Meta to signal its commitment to creating the metaverse — although the hype around this vision has subsided in recent months.

Experts that reviewed the Chinese proposal at the request of POLITICO said it risks violating principles of privacy and freedom to connect that have become hallmarks of the internet as most Western citizens know it.

“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,” said Chris Kremidas-Courtney, a senior fellow at Brussels think tank Friends of Europe.

The Chinese government proposed its social credit systems — a mechanism to score citizens’ trustworthiness across various domains, which can result in individuals being blacklisted from public services for what is deemed bad behavior — in 2014 and it has been gradually adopted by government agencies and local officials in areas like public transport, travel, and access to the internet and financial services. A document the Chinese central government released in November 2022 detailed a plan to finally roll out the system on a unified national scale.