In November, Barbados opened an embassy in the metaverse. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade of the Caribbean island state signed an agreement to open a digital embassy in Decentraland, one of most popular cryptocurrency-powered digital worlds. And while details of these developments in the construction of our future virtual worlds are still being worked out, we need to think through all the machinations that will attend such international relations disruption. We need to ask some really 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 respect to the future virtual world embassies, will international law — and, specifically, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the treaty that codifies the rules for diplomatic missions — apply? Article 1(i) of that treaty provides that “[t]he ‘premises of the mission’ are the buildings or parts of buildings and the land ancillary thereto, irrespective of ownership, used for the purposes of the mission including the residence of the head of the mission.” Of course, there is nothing in the treaty that speaks to virtual spaces or the metaverse.
Article 22(1) of that treaty also provides: “1. The premises of the mission shall be inviolable. The agents of the receiving State may not enter them, except with the consent of the head of the mission.” Does that make the computer code that creates these virtual embassies off limits to big tech’s interventions? 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 goes in to visit the virtual embassy, or the state of the country that is hosting the servers on which the virtual world’s platform is housed? With multiple servers hosting platforms, some of them located in different countries, one can see how complicated this might get.
Perhaps the receiving state should be the country in which Decentraland is incorporated. What if the company, like many multinational enterprises, is incorporated in more than one jurisdiction? This gets even more complicated when we add many other responsibilities that come with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. For example, Article 22(2) provides: “The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.” This makes interoperability problematic and puts new onuses on the platforms themselves.
These challenges will not stop the stampede to digital services that countries will provide to citizens, corporations and those tourists who wish to visit, virtually or physically, going forward. This year likely will produce a virtual property bubble, including construction of digitally sovereign territory, pushing the limits literally and metaphorically — even if we have not sorted out the rules of the road. Will diplomatic immunity be accorded members of the diplomatic staff of embassies and consulates that exist in the metaverse? Will it be a situation akin to the litany of parking tickets from cars of United Nations diplomats that go unpaid annually in New York City? Will diplomats who commit crimes and civil wrongs be above the law in the metaverse?
Our lawyers and lawmakers must determine the regulatory parameters of these issues soon. More and more governments will provide services on virtual platforms in the coming year. In November, the City Government of Seoul announced its plan to put 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 goggles. This initiative builds on the commitment of the Republic of Korea to implement a digital new deal, one that positions the country at the forefront of the digitization of services, including the provision of health care through the use of artificial intelligence.
As we prepare for meta-passports and avatar state workers, there will be a need for virtual customer service and support with real-world service helplines and call centers, and diplomatic protection by sovereign governments. But what about the responsibilities among participants and states in the metaverse with respect to consumer safety, privacy and tort law? Where will disputes be settled? Whose laws will reign supreme and how do we even begin to harmonize our standards?
These are not new questions, nor are virtual embassies a new phenomenon. The Maldives, Malta and the Philippines opened virtual embassies in 2007 on Second Life’s Diplomacy Island. What is different this time around is the advanced level of the virtual worlds’ technologies, the higher degree of interoperability with users from 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 do some deep thinking now, before events and innovations outpace our ability to regulate them. We have experienced the dangers of that already.
James Cooper is a professor of law at California Western School of Law in San Diego and a research fellow at Singapore University of Social Sciences. An international lawyer, he has advised on law and technology issues for governments, nongovernmental organizations, international institutions and Indigenous groups.