Facebook Whistleblower Issues Warning on Virtual Reality World of the “Metaverse” - The Jewish Voice
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Facebook Whistleblower Issues Warning on Virtual Reality World of the “Metaverse”

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Slams Zuckerberg for exhibiting a pattern of prioritizing growth over making sure Facebook is good for users

Edited by: TJVNews.com

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen warned Tuesday that the “metaverse,” the all-encompassing virtual reality world at the heart of the social media giant’s growth strategy, will be addictive and rob people of yet more personal information while giving the embattled company another monopoly online.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Haugen said her former employer rushed to trumpet the metaverse recently because of the intense pressure it is facing after she revealed deep-seated problems at the company, in disclosures that have energized legislative and regulatory efforts around the world to crack down on Big Tech.

“If you don’t like the conversation, you try to change the conversation,” the former product-manager-turned-whistleblower said. The documents she has turned over to authorities and her testimony to lawmakers have drawn global attention for providing insight into what Facebook may have known about the damage its social media platforms can cause. She is in the midst of a series of appearances before European lawmakers and regulators who are drawing up rules for social media companies, as was reported by the AP.

Meta, the new name for the parent company of Facebook, denied it was trying to divert attention away from the troubles it faces by pushing the metaverse. “This is not true. We have been working on this for a long time internally,” the company said in a statement.

It stressed that it’s working to responsibly build the metaverse — essentially a series of interconnected virtual communities that will merge online life with real life. AP reported that CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that users will, for example, be able to attend virtual concerts or fence with holograms of Olympic athletes in the metaverse — and he refocused the entire company on creating it, including renaming the business Meta.

Seen on the screen of a device in Sausalito, Calif., Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces the company’s new name, Meta, during a virtual event on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Zuckerberg promises that the virtual-reality “metaverse” he’s planning to build will “let you do almost anything.” That might not be such a great idea. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)

Launching that new brand, in fact, draws attention to the company, it said in a statement, adding that if it didn’t want the scrutiny it would have delayed or scrapped the launch altogether.

But the new focus on the metaverse creates a whole new set of dangers, Haugen said. In “Snow Crash,” the 1992 sci-fi novel that coined the phrase, “it was a thing that people used to numb themselves when their lives were horrible,” she said.

“So beyond the fact that these immersive environments are extremely addictive and they encourage people to unplug from the reality we actually live,” she said, “I’m also worried about it on the level of — the metaverse will require us to put many, many more sensors in our homes and our workplaces,” forcing users to relinquish more of their data and their privacy.

AP reported that in a presentation last month, Zuckerberg described how the metaverse would allow for mixed-reality business meetings where some participants are physically present while others beam in as avatars. The company has launched virtual meeting software called Horizon Workrooms for use with its virtual reality headsets, so co-workers can (hopefully) better communicate, brainstorm and socialize virtually, instead of, say, looking at one another on a Zoom call grid.

But Haugen said employees of companies that use the metaverse would have little option but to participate in the system or leave their jobs.

“If your employer decides they’re now a metaverse company, you have to give out way more personal data to a company that’s demonstrated that it lies whenever it is in its best interests,” she said, as was reported by the AP.

And she cautioned the public not to expect more transparency.

“They’ve demonstrated with regard to Facebook that they can hide behind a wall. They keep making unforced errors, they keep making things that prioritize their own profits over our safety,” she said.

AP reported that Haugen has said Facebook’s systems amplify online hate and extremism, fail to protect young people from harmful content, and that the company lacks any incentive to fix the problems, in revelations that shed light on an internal crisis at the company that provides free services to 3 billion people.

To back up her allegations, she has made a series of disclosures to the Securities and Exchange Commission that were also provided to Congress in redacted form by her legal team. The redacted versions received by Congress were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, including the AP.

In Tuesday’s interview, she expressed astonishment that the company would shift focus to a whole new realm while it is under such intense criticism about the areas where it is already working, as was reported by the AP.

“They’re going to hire 10,000 engineers to work on video games when they haven’t actually gotten safety right on their main product,” Haugen said.

For that, she faulted Zuckerberg personally, saying he has exhibited a pattern of prioritizing growth over making sure Facebook is good for users, according to the AP report.

“I think that is a failure of leadership,” she said. “Unless he wants to prioritize the safety of the platform, he should step aside and let someone else focus on that.”

The company denied that it’s putting profits over safety. “Yes, we’re a business and we make profit, but the idea that we do so at the expense of people’s safety or well-being misunderstands where our own commercial interests lie,” it said, adding that it plans to spend more than $5 billion in 2021 on safety and security and employs more than 40,000 people who work on keeping users safe.

AP reported that Zuckerberg has previously dismissed Haugen’s claims as a “coordinated effort” to paint a false picture of the company.

But officials in Washington and European capitals are taking her claims seriously. European Union lawmakers questioned her intensely Monday, before applauding her at the end of the 2 1/2 hour hearing.

The EU is drafting new digital rules for the 27-nation bloc that call for reining in big “digital gatekeepers,” requiring them to be more transparent about algorithms that determine what people see on their feeds and making them more accountable for the content on their platforms.

Facebook has said it largely supports regulations, with legislative efforts in the EU and United Kingdom much further along than those in the U.S. New rules could squeeze advertising revenue, but Meta’s stock price appears to have so far weathered the recent storm, as was reported by the AP.

Haugen has made stops in London and Berlin to speak to officials and lawmakers and spoke at a tech conference in Lisbon. She also will address French lawmakers in Paris on Wednesday.

In terms of the further elaborating on the nuances of the metaverse, AP reported that during his October presentation on it, Zuckerberg effused about going to virtual concerts with your friends, fencing with holograms of Olympic athletes and — best of all — joining mixed-reality business meetings where some participants are physically present while others beam in from the metaverse as cartoony avatars.

Facebook employee takes a photo in front of the new Meta Platforms Inc. sign outside the company headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promises that the virtual-reality “metaverse” he’s planning to build will “let you do almost anything.” That might not be such a great idea. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar, File)

But it’s just as easy to imagine dystopian downsides. Suppose the metaverse also enables a vastly larger, yet more personal version of the harassment and hate that Facebook has been slow to deal with on today’s internet? Or ends up with the same big tech companies that have tried to control the current internet serving as gatekeepers to its virtual-reality edition? Or evolves into a vast collection of virtual gated communities where every visitor is constantly monitored, analyzed and barraged with advertisements? Or foregoes any attempt to curtail user freedom, allowing scammers, human traffickers and cybergangs to commit crimes with impunity?

Picture an online troll campaign — but one in which the barrage of nasty words you might see on social media is instead a group of angry avatars yelling at you, with your only escape being to switch off the machine, said Amie Stepanovich, executive director of Silicon Flatirons at the University of Colorado.

“We approach that differently — having somebody scream at us than having somebody type at us,” she said. “There is a potential for that harm to be really ramped up.”

That’s one reason Meta might not be the best institution to lead us into the metaverse, said Philip Rosedale, founder of the virtual escape Second Life, which was an internet craze 15 years ago and still attracts hundreds of thousands of online inhabitants, as was reported by the AP.

The danger is creating online public spaces that appeal only to a “polarized, homogenous group of people,” said Rosedale, describing Meta’s flagship VR product, Horizon, as filled with “presumptively male participants” and a bullying tone. In a safety tutorial, Meta has advised Horizon users to treat fellow avatars kindly and offers tips for blocking, muting or reporting those who don’t, but Rosedale said it’s going to take more than a “schoolyard monitor” approach to avoid a situation that rewards the loudest shouters.

“Nobody’s going to come to that party, thank goodness,” he said. “We’re not going to move the human creative engine into that sphere.”

A better goal, he said, would be to create systems that are welcoming and flexible enough to allow people who don’t know each other to get along as well as they might in a real place like New York’s Central Park. Part of that could rely on systems that help someone build a good reputation and network of trusted acquaintances they can carry across different worlds, he said. In the current web environment, such reputation systems have had a mixed record in curbing toxic behavior.

AP reported that it’s not clear how long it will take Meta, or anyone else investing in the metaverse, to consider such issues. So far, tech giants from Microsoft and Apple to video game makers are still largely focused on debating the metaverse’s plumbing.

To make the metaverse work, some developers say they are going to have to form a set of industry standards similar to those that coalesced around HTML, the open “markup language” that’s been used to structure websites since the 1990s.

“You don’t think about that when you go to a website. You just click on the link,” said Richard Kerris, who leads the Omniverse platform for graphics chipmaker Nvidia. “We’re going to get to the same point in the metaverse where going from one world to another world and experiencing things, you won’t have to think about, ‘Do I have the right setup?’”

Nvidia’s vision for an open standard involves a structure for 3D worlds built by movie-making studio Pixar, which is also used by Apple. Among the basic questions being resolved are how physics will work in the metaverse — will virtual gravity cause someone’s glass to smash into pieces if they drop it? Will those rules change as you move from place to place?

Bigger disagreements will center on questions of privacy and identity, said Timoni West, vice president of augmented and virtual reality at Unity Technologies, which builds an engine for video game worlds.

“Being able to share some things but not share other things” is important when you’re showing off art in a virtual home but don’t want to share the details of your calendar, she said, according to the AP report. “There’s a whole set of permission layers for digital spaces that the internet could avoid but you really need to have to make this whole thing work.”

Some metaverse enthusiasts who’ve been working on the concept for years welcome the spotlight that could attract curious newcomers, but they also want to make sure Meta doesn’t ruin their vision for how this new internet gets built.

“The open metaverse is created and owned by all of us,” said Ryan Gill, founder and CEO of metaverse-focused startup Crucible. “The metaverse that Mark Zuckerberg and his company want is created by everybody but owned by them.”

Gill said Meta’s big splash is a reaction to ideas circulating in grassroots developer communities centered around “decentralized” technologies like blockchain and non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, that can help people establish and protect their online identity and credentials.

Central to this tech movement, nicknamed Web 3, for a third wave of internet innovation, is that what people create in these online communities belongs to them, a shift away from the Big Tech model of “accumulating energy and attention and optimizing it for buying behavior,” Gill said.

Evan Greer, an activist with Fight for the Future, said it’s easy to see Facebook’s Meta announcement as a cynical attempt to distance itself from all the scandals the company is facing. But she says Meta’s push is actually even scarier.

“This is Mark Zuckerberg revealing his end game, which is not just to dominate the internet of today but to control and define the internet that we leave to our children and our children’s children,” she said.

The company recently abandoned its use of facial recognition on its Facebook app, but metaverse gadgetry relies on new forms of tracking people’s gaits, body movements and expressions to animate their avatars with real-world emotions. And with both Facebook and Microsoft pitching metaverse apps as important work tools, there’s a potential for even more invasive workplace monitoring and exhaustion.

Activists are calling for the U.S. to pass a national digital privacy act that would apply not just to today’s platforms like Facebook but also those that might exist in the metaverse. Outside of a few such laws in states such as California and Illinois, though, actual online privacy laws remain rare in the U.S.

(Sources: AP writers, Raf Casert, Kelvin Chan, Matt O’Brien & Barbara Ortutay)

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