• 29 May, 2024

China Mobile’s Metaverse Digital ID Proposal Echoes Social Credit System

China Mobile, a state-owned telecommunications company, has put forward a proposal to the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for a “Digital Identity System” within the metaverse. The proposal is slated for a vote in October and has raised questions about privacy and governmental oversight.

The system would mandate digital IDs for all users of online virtual worlds, known as metaverses. These IDs would include personal details such as occupation and other identifiable characteristics, stored permanently and accessible to law enforcement to ensure virtual world order and safety.

The proposal includes an illustrative example of how the system could identify and penalize a disruptive user in the metaverse. Observers have noted that the proposal has striking similarities to China’s social credit system, a controversial mechanism that assesses and ranks citizens’ trustworthiness. An expert involved in the ITU’s metaverse focus group, who wished to remain anonymous, voiced concerns, saying:

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?

The focus group, comprising regulators, academics, NGOs, and tech companies, is working on new standards for metaverse services. Reports indicated that Chinese entities are submitting more proposals than their counterparts in the U.S. or Europe, possibly giving China a greater influence over the future rules of the metaverse.

China’s active role in shaping global standards for emerging technologies has previously caused unease among Western officials. In 2020, there were warnings about attempts by Chinese telecom giant Huawei to alter internet protocols. Western officials have expressed concern over China’s attempts to influence Internet and telecommunications rules, fearing it could promote a government-controlled version of the Internet, undermining global principles of openness and freedom.

Matt Sheehan, a researcher at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, commented on China’s influence on the ITU, saying that Chinese actors often submit poor proposals, sometimes incentivized by government subsidies. He noted that this has led to U.S. and European tech companies disregarding ITU standards.

The digital ID proposal coincides with China’s plans to implement its social credit system nationally. This system has already been partially adopted in various sectors, including public transport and internet access.

China’s interest in the metaverse is part of its broader technological ambitions. The government of China’s Sichuan province has previously unveiled plans to expand the metaverse industry to 250 billion yuan [approximately $34.4 billion] by 2025.

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