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[Document] EU Communication on Virtual Worlds
A brief explainer
On July 11, 2023, the European Commission published a Communication on “Web 4.0 and virtual worlds: a head start in the next technological transition.” The document introduces and attempts to clarify definitions, brings attention to the economic and social potential of virtual worlds and related technologies, and outlines the EU’s vision and strategy for the technological transition. The Communication lists 10 actions the Commission will take between now and the second quarter of 2024.
How did we get here?
14 September 2022: In her State of the Union, European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen announced the development of an initiative on “virtual worlds, such as metaverse.”
24 February 2023—23 April 2023: the Commission hosted the European Citizens' Panel on Virtual Worlds, resulting in 23 recommendations.
5 April 2023—3 May 2023: the Commission published an open call for evidence for an upcoming “EU initiative on virtual worlds.”
11 July 2023: the Commission published its Communication on virtual worlds.
What is a Communication?
An official EU document that outlines the EU's position on a specific topic or policy area. Unlike a Regulation, Directive, or Decision, Communications are non-legislative and serve rather as preparatory documents to present the Commission's analysis, objectives, and intended actions on a particular subject, and to develop policy and communicate future initiatives.
What does the Communication on virtual worlds say?
The document provides two important definitions.
“Virtual worlds are persistent, immersive environments, based on technologies including 3D and extended reality (XR), which make it possible to blend physical and digital worlds in real- time, for a variety of purposes such as designing, making simulations, collaborating, learning, socialising, carrying out transactions or providing entertainment.”
“Web 4.0 is the expected fourth generation of the World Wide Web. Using advanced artificial and ambient intelligence, the internet of things, trusted blockchain transactions, virtual worlds and XR capabilities, digital and real objects and environments are fully integrated and communicate with each other, enabling truly intuitive, immersive experiences, seamlessly blending the physical and digital worlds.”
The Communication sets out the potential economic benefits of virtual worlds: the global market of virtual worlds is expected to grow from €27 billion in 2022 to €800 billion by 2030 and create an estimated 860,000 new jobs related to extend reality hardware in Europe by 2025.
The Commission envisions virtual worlds that are “open and interoperable,” designed with respect for users’ digital rights, and developed sustainably. The document explains how existing and upcoming regulations aligns with its strategy, before presenting 10 further actions structured around the three “cardinal points” of the EU’s Digital Decade policy programme:
Talent pool. Develop skills for virtual world technologies and promote the EU as an attractive destination for highly-skilled specialists from outside the bloc.
Principles. Promote guiding principles for virtual worlds put forward by the Citizens’ Panel and support research on the impact of virtual worlds on people’s well-being.
Digital literacy. Develop a toolbox for the public, and resources for young people, to provide guidance on trustworthy virtual worlds technologies.
Partnerships. Explore the launch of a new European Partnership to promote collaborate among virtual worlds hubs and between developers and users.
Innovation. Encourage innovation through regulatory sandboxes, a supportive SME and start up ecosystem.
Interoperability. Support the development of standards for open and interoperable virtual worlds and support the open-source community.
Smart cities. Support public flagships for smart and sustainable cities and communities, including virtual public services.
Expert group. Bring Member States together through an expert group to share common approaches and best practices on the technical and social development of virtual worlds.
Global governance. Engage with existing international internet governance institutions and support the creation of a technical multi-stakeholder forum.
Monitoring. Monitor the development of virtual worlds to identify opportunities, foster greater understanding of new practices, and foresee emerging challenges.
The fourth cardinal point—Infrastructure—will be addressed through the Commission’s upcoming connectivity package.
Does this Communication matter?
Communications set the agenda and get the regulatory machinery moving. These documents typically foster discussion around policy, garner useful feedback for stakeholders, and build consensus or disagreement among policymakers. They inspire further initiatives and, sometimes, new laws. Consider the regulatory journey of the AI Act:
26 June 2018: A Communication on “Artificial Intelligence for Europe.”
4 March 2019: A Communication on a “Coordinated Plan on Artificial Intelligence.”
8 April 2019: A Communication on “Human-Centric Artificial Intelligence.”
27 February 2020: A White Paper on Artificial Intelligence
24 April 2021: A proposal for a Regulation on Artificial Intelligence
Initial Communications on AI, which cautiously called for investments, stakeholder partnerships, and further research, proved to be precursors to the Artificial Intelligence Act (set to pass into law at the end of 2023.) Whether or not the EU has started on the path toward a Virtual Worlds Act remains to be seen. But future non-legislative initiatives are likely.
What happens next?
The Commission will invite the European Parliament and the Council to endorse this strategy and start work on its implementation, with its stated actions starting from publish date to and finishing around the same time next year.
Following the publication of a Communication, it is common for other EU institutions, member states, and interested parties to provide their input and engage in discussions, which may inform further initiatives and position papers.
What do we at Metaverse EU think of this initiative?
We welcome the European Commission's communication as a crucial first step, but call for greater ambition and more concrete action to harness the revolutionary power of immersive technology. Check out our detailed reaction in our press release, featured also in Politico US, DLNews, and Coindesk.