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Making ethical decisions for the immersive web


One of the promises of immersive technologies is real time communication unrestrained by geography. This is as transformative as the internet, radio, television, and telephones—each represents a pivot in mass communications that provides new opportunities for information dissemination and creating connections between people. This raises the question, “what’s the immersive future we want?”

We want to be able to connect without traveling. Indulge our curiosity and creativity beyond our physical limitations. Revolutionize the way we visualize and share our ideas and dreams. Enrich everyday situations. Improve access to limited resources like healthcare and education.

The internet is an integral part of modern life—a key component in education, communication, collaboration, business, entertainment and society as a whole.
— Mozilla Manifesto, Principle 1

My first instinct is to say that I want an immersive future that brings joy. Do AR apps that help me maintain my car bring me joy? Not really.

What I really want is an immersive future that respects individual creators and users. Platforms and applications that thoughtfully approach issues of autonomy, privacy, bias, and accessibility in a complex environment. How do we get there? First, we need to understand the broader context of augmented and virtual reality in ethics, identifying overlap with both other technologies (e.g. artificial intelligence) and other fields (e.g. medicine and education). Then, we can identify the unique challenges presented by spatial and immersive technologies. Given the current climate of ethics and privacy, we can anticipate potential problems, identify the core issues, and evaluate different approaches.

From there, we have an origin for discussion and a path for taking practical steps that enable legitimate uses of MR while discouraging abuse and empowering individuals to make choices that are right for them.

For details and an extended discussion on these topics, see this paper.

The immersive web

Whether you have a $30 or $3000 headset, you should be able to participate in the same immersive universe. No person should be excluded due to their skin color, hairstyle, disability, class, location, or any other reason.

The internet is a global public resource that must remain open and accessible.
Mozilla Manifesto, Principle 2

The immersive web represents an evolution of the internet. Immersive technologies are already deployed in education and healthcare. It's unethical to limit their benefits to a privileged few, particularly when MR devices can improve access to limited resources. For example, Americans living in rural areas are underserved by healthcare, particularly specialist care. In an immersive world, location is no longer an obstacle. Specialists can be virtually present anywhere, just like they were in the room with the patient. Trained nurses and assistants would be required for physical manipulations and interactions, but this could dramatically improve health coverage and reduce burdens on both patients and providers.

While we can build accessibility into browsers and websites, the devices themselves need to be created with appropriate accomodations, like settings that indicate a user is in a wheelchair. When we design devices and experiences, we need to consider how they'll work for people with disabilities. It's imperative to build inclusive MR devices and experiences, both because it's unethical to exclude users due to disability, and because there are so many opportunities to use MR as an assistive technology, including:

  • Real time subtitles
  • Gaze-based navigation
  • Navigation with vehicle and obstacle detection and warning

The immersive web is for everyone.

Representation and safety

Mixed reality offers new ways to connect with each other, enabling us to be virtually present anywhere in the world instantaneously. Like most technologies, this is both a good and a bad thing. While it transforms how we can communicate, it also offers new vectors for abuse and harassment.

All social VR platforms need to have simple and obvious ways to report abusive behavior and block the perpetrators. All social platforms, whether 2D or 3D should have this, but the VR-enabled embodiment intensifies the impact of harassment. Behavior that would be limited to physical presence is no longer geographically limited, and identities can be more obfuscated. Safety is not a 'nice to have' feature — it's a requirement. Safety is a key component in inclusion and freedom of expression, as well as being a human right.

Freedom of expression in this paradigm includes both choosing how to present yourself and having the ability to maintain multiple virtual identities. Immersive social experiences allow participants to literally build their identities via avatars. Human identity is infinitely complex (and not always very human — personally, I would choose a cat avatar). Thoughtfully approaching diversity and representation in avatars isn't easy, but it is worthwhile.

Individuals must have the ability to shape the internet and their own experiences on it.
Mozilla Manifesto, Principle 5

Suppose Banksy, a graffiti artist known both for their art and their anonymity, is an accountant by day who used an HMD to conduct virtual meetings. Outside of work, Banksy is a virtual graffiti artist. However, biometric data could tie the two identities together, stripping Banksy of their anonymity. Anonymity enables free speech; it removes the threats of economic retailiation and social ostracism and allows consumers to process ideas free of predjudices about the creators. There's a long history of women who wrote under assumed names to avoid being dismissed for their gender, including JK Rowling and George Sand.

Unique considerations in mixed reality

Immersive technologies differ from others in their ability to affect our physical bodies. To achieve embodiment and properly interact with virtual elements, devices use a wide range of data derived from user biometrics, the surrounding physical world, and device orientation. As the technology advances, the data sources will expand.

The sheer amount of data required for MR experiences to function requires that we rethink privacy. Earlier, I mentioned that gaze-based navigation can be used to allow mobility impaired users to participate more fully on the immersive web. Unfortunately, gaze tracking data also exposes large amounts of nonverbal data that can be used to infer characteristics and mental states, including ADHD and sexual arousal.

Individuals’ security and privacy on the internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional.
Mozilla Manifesto, Principle 4

While there may be a technological solution to this problem, it highlights a wider social and legal issue: we've become too used to companies monetizing our personal data. It's possible to determine that, although users report privacy concerns, they don't really care, because they 'consent' to disclosing personal information for small rewards. The reality is that privacy is hard. It's hard to define and it's harder to defend. Processing privacy policies feels like it requires a law degree and quantifying risks and tradeoffs is nondeterministic. In the US, we've focused on privacy as an individual's responsibility, when Europe (with the General Data Protection Regulation) shows that it's society's problem and should be tackled comprehensively.

Concrete steps for ethical decision making

Ethical principles aren't enough. We also need to take action — while some solutions will be technical, there are also legal, regulatory, and societal challenges that need to be addressed.

  1. Educate and assist lawmakers
  2. Establish a regulatory authority for flexible and responsive oversight
  3. Engage engineers and designers to incorporate privacy by design
  4. Empower users to understand the risks and benefits of immersive technology
  5. Incorporate experts from other fields who have addressed similar problems

Tech needs to take responsibility. We've built technology that has incredible positive potential, but also serious risks for abuse and unethical behavior. Mixed reality technologies are still emerging, so there's time to shape a more respectful and empowering immersive world for everyone.