China Mobile, the country’s state-owned telecommunications company, has proposed a “Digital Identity System” for the so-called ‘metaverse’ in negotiations with the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union, an influential agency in shaping the regulatory infrastructure of global IT. China Mobile’s proposed Digital Identity System would be based on the “natural characteristics” and “social characteristics” of users, allowing government authorities to track their behavior online and ensure “the order and safety of the virtual world,” according to the proposal.
The digital ID system would, in other words, extend government surveillance across the internet, with the China Mobile proposal offering the example of a problematic metaverse user who “spreads rumors and makes chaos in the metaverse”. By identifying the user through his “identifiable signs” and other attributes, law enforcement could ensure there are repercussions for this user.
Commenting on the proposal to Politico, a researcher with the think tank “Friends of Europe” compared the idea to China’s infamous “social credit system,” a citizen scoring program that would punish individuals for certain kinds of behaviors that the Chinese Communist Party has gradually rolled out across various government domains.
Concerns about such “social credit” systems have fuelled alarm among individuals opposed to the emergence of digital ID systems in Western countries. Pierre Poilievre, the leader of the Canadian government’s opposition party, recently vowed to never make digital ID mandatory, a declaration that was compared to the language of conspiracy theorists by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). But various government officials have shown some interest in using identity verification to police online behavior. In Ireland, for example, the Minister for Social Protection, Heather Humphrews, said earlier this year that requiring identity verification on social media would ensure that users are “accountable for what they say”. And in the US, some are concerned about a proposed bill that would require age verification for children on social media, and whether this might lead to broader requirements of identity disclosures.
That having been said, in the domain of the ITU, China Mobile’s proposal may well get some pushback from governments such as the United Kingdom, which reaffirmed individuals’ rights to anonymity online in response to a petition in 2021.
China Mobile put forward its proposal at the second meeting of the ITU’s metaverse focus group, which was launched in December of 22, this past July. The proposal is expected to see a vote in October, when the next meeting of the group will be held in Geneva.
August 23, 2023 – by Alex Perala