Proposals reviewed by POLITICO show China wants to assert state control over virtual environments
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.
China Mobile did not reply to multiple requests for comment. The company is the largest mobile operator by single subscriber. It was delisted by the New York Stock Exchange in 2021 after an executive order by Donald Trump barred U.S. investments into companies aiding China’s military.
Arena for the race for tech supremacy
The ITU, as a U.N. agency, plays an influential role in defining the ground rules for global telecommunications and technology infrastructure. It has turned into a key arena for geopolitical wranglings over the future of the internet, especially between China on the one hand and the United States and its allies on the other.
ITU’s metaverse focus group launched in December 2022 and is meant to be the central forum for regulators, academics, non-governmental organizations and technology companies to thrash out the standards for a hypothetical immersive internet.
China Mobile put forward the proposal on July 5, at the second meeting of the ITU’s metaverse focus group held in Shanghai. It will likely be voted on in the next meeting, slated to take place inOctober in Geneva.
A technology expert contributing to the ITU metaverse focus group and familiar with the matter, said that Chinese organizations are filing more proposals than U.S. or European participants, and that this could end up giving Beijing an edge in the long run. “They are trying to play the long game,” said the expert, who was granted anonymity to talk candidly about the discussions. “When the metaverse comes around, they’ll say, ‘these are the standards.’”
„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?,” they added.
Kremidas-Courtney said that China plans to “be the world leader in metaverse development,” a technology that dovetails with its plan for a state-controlled digital renminbi. Standard-setting is the natural first step in that roadmap. “If you want to seize the future, you set the standards for it,” Kremidas-Courtney said.
Some experts flagged that Beijing’s attempts to take the lead over work at the U.N. agency is hurting the organization’s standing across the world.
“The ITU is the [standardization] body that China has done the most damage to,” said Matt Sheehan, a fellow at Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has written at length about China’s work in standardization bodies.
“Chinese actors flood it with bad proposals, often because they get government subsidies for filing them. But the result is that [U.S. and European] technology companies just don’t pay attention to ITU standards anymore,” he said.
Foto: Experts that reviewed the proposal at the request of POLITICO said it risks violating principles of privacy and freedom | Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images