The tech giant formerly known has Facebook has recently announced that it will change its name to Meta and sharpen its focus on the development of the Metaverse, in essence a digital construct comprised of augmented and virtual realities that run alongside and potentially supplant the physical world. In this article, we discuss Facebook’s new name, the Metaverse and some real and metaphysical legal and regulatory challenges.
On 28 October 2021, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook’s parent company, Facebook, Inc., would be rebranding to Meta Platforms, Inc. (‘Meta’). Meta is the same legal entity as Facebook Inc, new in name only.
The new name will encompass social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus. The name change reflects the company’s new focus on people starting to view Meta as a Metaverse, rather than a social media platform.
The Metaverse is an interconnected virtual environment where users can interact with each other in a shared digital space. Inspired by Neal Stephenson’s 1992 sci-fi novel, Snow Crash, users enter the Metaverse using VR and AR technology, with an immersive experience so that the virtual space is experienced as a tactile reality, rather than being viewed through a screen. Although Meta will design the foundations of the Metaverse, Zuckerberg’s vision is that no one company will run the Metaverse – it will be operated in collaboration with many different players in a decentralised way.
The Metaverse points towards exciting new possibilities. In this era of working from home, being able to interact with others through a shared digital space may completely revolutionise the way we socialise and work with each other. For example, rather than connecting with colleagues through a Zoom call, Metaverse users may be able to enter a virtual office-space where they can see and hear their colleagues. Rather than sharing a document through a screen, users could physically hand the document to their colleagues inside this virtual space. Users may also be able to buy and sell digital objects or attend virtual parties and concerts. Zuckerberg views the Metaverse as a successor to the mobile internet.
Meta aims to develop currently existing virtual reality (‘VR’) and augmented reality (‘AR’) technologies. AR means the use of technology to overlay digital information over images or videos of physical reality. VR is a similar type of technology that instead aims to completely simulate reality and create a new, all encompassing reality.
The Metaverse has been strategically important to Facebook at least since 2014, when it agreed to acquire Oculus VR, Inc., the leader in immersive virtual reality technology, for approximately US$2 billion.
Meta has announced that it will utilise both VR and AR technologies in the Metaverse. For a deeper insight into AR and VR and Australian Privacy Law, see our article here.
The Metaverse also will enable users to buy and sell digital products through a virtual marketplace. These objects will likely be in the form of NFTs – tokens tied to a digital asset that can be bought or sold using cryptocurrency. There are many potential uses for these products in the Metaverse. For example, a user may want to decorate a shared office space with digital art or buy digital clothes for their online avatar. For a look into the spiky rise of NFTs and their associated legal issues and challenges, see our article here.
It is important to note that the software that links AR and VR experiences across one platform is yet to be developed to a production-ready state. Software developers are still finalising an effective way to implement NFT blockchain technology into these sorts of experiences. Over the coming years, Meta plans to build out the array of connected devices through which users experience the Metaverse, the software for developers to design experiences, and the marketplaces where virtual products will be bought and sold.
The Facebook social media app will continue to run as usual as will still be named ‘Facebook’. The same can be said for WhatsApp, Instagram, Oculus and other Meta properties. The Metaverse is conceived as a separate platform to the Facebook website, and changes to the Metaverse technology will not affect the technology used by the other social media platforms. However, it is possible that users will be able to access a three-dimensional version of Facebook through the Metaverse platform.
1. Is Meta a PR Strategy?
There is a view in certain circles that the Meta name change may, at least in part, be an effort to correct Facebook’s reputational challenges and distance itself from recent legal scandals. The decision to rename itself came shortly after whistle-blower Frances Haugen leaked thousands of internal documents to the United States Congress and the press. These documents detailed numerous internal alleged issues at the company, such as facilitating harm to mental health and not going far enough to moderate ‘hate speech’ on the Facebook platform. These documents galvanised a hearing on Capitol Hill, where Facebook was called to account with respect to these issues. The United States Congress has been discussing the possibility of forcing the company to divest Instagram and WhatsApp, and limit the company’s ability to make further acquisitions of significant social media platforms.
The name ‘Facebook’, whilst a universally recognised and iconic brand, has been recently marred with reputational slights, scrutiny from the United States Congress, and disapproval from some circles of both the social media industry and the general public. Renaming its parent company, will not of itself address these issues, though it may at least signal a fresh direction and a break from the past. However, unless Facebook can address its internal challenges, a name change alone would seem to have a limited public relations ‘halo effect’.
2. Trademark Clearance Issues
The name change to Meta has been challenged by Meta PC’s, an Arizona-based company that sells computers, laptops and software. Meta PC’s filed to have the name ‘Meta’ trademarked in August 2021, just a few months before the Facebook name change. Meta PC’s co-founder, Zack Shutt, announced that they will not sell the name for less than USD$20 million. However, there may be other ways for Facebook to acquire the name.
Under US law, rights are not granted by trademark registration alone. Instead, rights arise out of use. This means that Facebook could acquire rights in the Meta trademark if it can prove that it has actual legitimate use of the name for a business or commercial purpose. Meta PC’s may find itself in an intellectual property dispute with one of the world’s biggest companies, so it will be interesting to watch how this plays out.
3. Privacy Concerns
The prospect of the Metaverse raises questions about how the virtual space will be governed, how its contents would be moderated, and how it would protect the privacy of its users. We will be writing about these challenges in a forthcoming article.
Facebook’s name change to Meta gives rise to an array of fascinating paradigms, legally, socially and commercially. Not least, it represents a lamp-light that portends exciting possibilities of how humans may live, work and play in online environments in the not too distant future. However, certain commentators and interest groups continue to suggest that the Metaverse name change is primarily part of a broader PR strategy, to paper over very real cracks in the Facebook universe. Time will tell.
For advice on the Metaverse and law in digital environments generally, feel free to contact us below.