In November, Barbados opened a embassy in the metaverse. The Caribbean island state’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade has signed an agreement to open a digital embassy in Decentraland, one of the most popular cryptocurrency-powered digital worlds. And while the details of these developments in building our future virtual worlds are still being worked out, we must ponder all the machinations that will accompany such a disruption in international relations. We need to ask truly thoughtful and creative lawyers what this will mean for the future of diplomatic relations, sovereign immunity, and the social contract between the governed and their authorities.
With regard to future embassies in the virtual world, international law — and, more particularly, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relationss, the treaty that codifies the rules of diplomatic missions — applies? Article 1(i) of this treaty provides that “[t]“Mission premises” are the buildings or parts of buildings and adjoining land, regardless of ownership, used for the needs of the mission, including the residence of the head of mission. Of course, there is nothing in the treatise that talks about virtual spaces or the metaverse.
Article 22, paragraph 1, of this treaty also provides: “1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may enter there only with the consent of the head of the mission. Does this make the computer code that creates these virtual embassies beyond the reach of big tech intervention? But if Decentraland is the platform hosting the embassy in the metaverse, who is the “receiving” state? Is it the state of the country whose citizen travels to visit the virtual embassy, or the state of the country that hosts the servers on which the virtual world platform is hosted? With multiple servers hosting platforms, some of which are located in different countries, one can see how complicated it can get.
Perhaps the host state should be the country in which Decentraland is incorporated. What if the company, like many multinational companies, is incorporated in more than one jurisdiction? It gets even more complicated when we add many other responsibilities that come with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. For example, Article 22(2) states: “The receiving State has a special duty to take all appropriate measures to protect the premises of the mission against intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or violation of his dignity. This makes interoperability problematic and imposes new responsibilities on the platforms themselves.
These challenges will not stop the rush of digital services that countries will provide to citizens, businesses and tourists who wish to visit, virtually or physically, in the future. This year will likely produce a virtual real estate bubble, including building sovereign territory digitally, pushing the boundaries literally and metaphorically – even if we haven’t settled the rules of the road. Will diplomatic immunity be granted to members of the diplomatic staff of embassies and consulates that exist in the metaverse? Will it be a situation similar to the litany of United Nations diplomats’ car parking tickets that remain unpaid every year in New York? Will diplomats who commit crimes and torts be above the law in the Metaverse?
Our lawyers and legislators must soon determine the regulatory parameters of these questions. More and more governments will provide services on virtual platforms in the coming year. In November, the Seoul City Government announced his project set up a government office on the metaverse. Residents of the South Korean capital will be able to visit a virtual city hall and access public services such as visiting historic sites and filing civil complaints, all through virtual reality glasses. This initiative builds on the commitment of the Republic of Korea to implement a digital new order, which positions the country at the forefront of digitizing services, including healthcare delivery through the use of artificial intelligence.
As we prepare for meta passports and government worker avatars, there will be a need for virtual customer service and support with real-world helplines and call centers, and diplomatic protection by sovereign governments. But what about the responsibilities between participants and states in the metaverse with respect to consumer safety, privacy, and tort law? Where will disputes be settled? Which laws will reign supreme and how will we even begin to harmonize our standards?
These issues are not new, and virtual embassies are not a new phenomenon either. The Maldives, Malta and the Philippines opened virtual embassies in 2007 on the diplomatic island of Second Life. What’s different this time around is the advanced level of virtual worlds technologies, the higher degree of interoperability with users around the world, and the fact that Meta (Facebook) and other Big Tech companies are investing billions of dollars in this expanding space.
We had better think deeply now, before events and innovations overwhelm our ability to regulate them. We have already experienced its dangers.
James Cooper is a law professor at Western California School of Law in San Diego and researcher at Singapore University of Social Sciences. An international lawyer, he has advised governments, non-governmental organizations, international institutions and indigenous groups on issues of law and technology.