Chinese proposals for Metaverse show that we are negotiating for “Cyberterritory”


The latest proposals aimed at regulating the Metaverse, put forward by China Mobile, on July 5 in the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) metaverse focus group meeting must be analyzed. These proposals exemplify the inherent behavioral trait of “Territoriality” in a State, which is generally discussed with the ideas of borders and boundaries. The basic characteristics of “territoriality” are – the urge to protect and control a territory, the need to separate people “belonging” and “not belonging” to the territory and the necessity of punishing those who go against the general laws and conventions governing the territory.

The idea of a territory is contradictory to the idea of space, which is more abstract in nature. Unlike a territory, Space is undefined and unallocated. The inherent trait of territoriality is actually the inherent trait of trying to carve out an independent defined “territory” in this abstract “space”. In this backdrop, it becomes important to understand whether we are negotiating, discussing and contemplating in a Cyberspace, or for a Cyberterritory.

First basic characteristic of territoriality, i.e. the necessity to establish control and protect the cyberspace of a country, is exemplified by the Great Firewall of China. The major proposal tabled by China regarding assigning separate IDs to the people in the metaverse to keep a tab on their citizens’ digital identities is a way of characterizing the digital citizens as “ours” and “theirs”. The proposal hinting towards establishment of a real-world based punitive system in response to the virtual behavior and mistakes of the digital citizens, by keeping a watch on their digital “social” and “natural” activities, is compared to the Social Credit Scheme implemented in China. It enforces loyalty to the territory and its government proposes punishment otherwise.  

The metaverse market is expected to cross $82 billion in 2023, reaching up to $936.6 billion till the end of 2030. The way it is governed and its terms are negotiated will soon attract great focus. Artists have started conducting concerts in Metaverse, ending the need for visas and passports to cross borders, while their tickets and other Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) are bought and sold using cryptocurrencies. Recently, as a part of VR Therapy, a virtual version of Kyiv is designed in the Metaverse for the Ukrainian Refugees. The applications and importance of Metaverse are increasingly manifold.

The idea of internet brought hope of a fully globalized world with no barriers of the borders. Internet regulations across the world negated the essence of a free and common internet. The effect trickled to all the areas empowered by the internet, including space technology, subsea cables as well as everyday aspects such as social media. The hope of Metaverse being created to liberate people from their assigned identities, and integrate them into a world society seems to be fading away with recent proposals by China as just the start to it.

While the countries individually and via various multilateral forums claim to be discussing the aspects of enhancing the functioning of the Cyberspace, they are actually showcasing Cyber Territoriality, negotiating for their ‘own’, instead of a ‘common’ cyberspace. What generally then is observed is the unfolding of debates on data privacy, data integrity and fair terms of trans-boundary exchange of data. Prominent debates are emerging, encompassing the spectrum between free and open data standards promoted by the US and strict internet and data control by China with Europe setting its own standards of data-privacy. While all the major stakeholders try to impose their own cyber standards across the world, the underlying issue of territoriality is not resolved or even acknowledged.

With so many similarities between the territorial behavior towards physical space and the emerging quest to territorialize the cyber domain, will looking at Cyber as a Territory instead of a Space be a more pragmatic approach, especially while negotiating with countries promoting strong Cyber Territoriality such as China? If we look at the distribution of the resources in the seas, there has been a clear demarcation of where territoriality ends (transitioning from territorial waters to Exclusive Economic Zones to the high-seas) and globally common waters start. Conceptualizing the same for cyberspace may prove to be difficult. But imagining a global system without such demarcated zones in the waters might prove to be equally difficult.

As the ITU is set to discuss the proposals in October 2023, there needs to be a clarity on whether the discussion is regarding Cyberspace or Cyberterritory. The nature of negotiations in both the cases may vary greatly. If the urgency of creating a global discourse on Cybersecurity is to be fulfilled, the States need to acknowledge their Cyber Territorial behavior not to entrap themselves into an endless debate on what the standards should be, without acknowledging the cause of motivation in setting those standards.

Aishwarya Acharya
Aishwarya Acharya
Aishwarya Acharya has completed her Masters in International Relations and Area Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and is currently working as a Research Intern at Institute of Chinese Studies. Her interests lie in Security, Political Economy and Tech Geopolitics. She has written articles for Financial Express, Lowy Institute etc.