There is a lot of sensitive data that will captured by virtual reality devices that present a wide range of ethical and moral dilemmas that I’ve been covering on The Voices of VR podcast since 2016. During Facebook Connect, Facebook released their responsible innovation principles, started talking to the media about these principles, & Facebook CEO Mark Zukerberg told the Verge that “One of the things that I’ve learned over the last several years is that you don’t want to wait until you have issues to be discussing how you want to address [ethical issues]. And not just internally — having a social conversation publicly about how society thinks these things should be addressed.” However, the public record showed that hardly any of these ethical discussions about XR having been happening publicly.

Most of the ethical discussions Facebook has been having have almost exclusively happening in private contexts, under non-disclosure agreements, or under Chatam House rules that occluded any public transparency or accountability. I have been asking Facebook for the past couple of years to get some privacy experts to come speak about the ethical implications of biometric data, but they’ve been resistant to go on the record about some of these more thorny ethical issues about the future of XR. The good news is that this seems to be changing as I was given the opportunity to speak on the record with Nathan White who is Facebook Reality Labs’ Privacy Policy Manager for AR & VR.

White has an impressive history with advocating for human rights and technology policy, helping to reform US Surveillance Law while working with Dennis Kucinich, and was motivated to bring about change from the inside by working at Facebook over the objections from some of his friends who thought that it would be a morally-compromising position. White calls himself a privacy advocate within Facebook, and his role is to try to synthesize the outside perspectives about privacy implications from a wide range of privacy advocates, academics, non-profit organizations, civil society, and generally the types of privacy & ethics discussions that are happening here on the Voices of VR podcast.

Part of White’s role is to collaborate with the external organizations and experts on these issues, but most of these opportunities for outside council have been happening behind closed doors and under NDA. But he’s hope to be more engaged in these conversations within a public context because it’s these organizations who are going to collaboratively help to set some of the normative standards for what we do with the data from XR way before the government enshrines some of these boundaries within some type of legal framework. The ethical boundaries and framework more likely to come from a collaboration from the XR community first from organizations like the XR Security Initiative, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and other tech policy non-profit organizations.

Is that enough for me to be assured that Facebook is doing everything they can to be on the right side of XR privacy? No, not yet. We still need to have more mechanisms for transparency and accountability that go beyond the community collaborations and listening to what the culture is saying. Privacy advocate Joe Jerome told me that the trap is feeling like the feedback that’s provided to a company like Facebook can feel like it’s just a “box-checking exercise” for them so that they can say that they talked to privacy advocates. An example is VP Facebook Reality Labs Andrew Bosworth saying, “Consulting with experts across privacy, safety, and AR/VR from the very start is crucial to our product development process to ensure that we have the right frameworks as the technologies we build continue to evolve.” It’s great that experts where consulted, but there’s no transparency as to what exactly any of these privacy experts told Facebook or the degree to which any of their advice was implemented.

This is part of the reason why Jerome advocates for strong enforcement mechanisms in order to have a satisfactory level of accountability when it comes to privacy issues. In the absence of a strong oversight mandate and ability to bring consequences, then it’s have consumers be ensured that companies like Facebook are doing everything they can to ensure that they’re taking consumer privacy seriously.

I trust that White is going to serve as a strong voice for consumer privacy, but at the same time there’s no way for anyone on the outside to know to what degree those consumer privacy concerns are outweighed by competing business interests or used for secondary purposes that fall within a broad range of interpretations of the open-ended and vague language of Facebook’s privacy policy. It’s also an open question for what types of things that Facebook needs to do in order build trust that they’re being good stewards of XR data.

But a big takeaway that I get from my conversation with White is that he doesn’t want to be the lone voice and sole advocate for privacy from within Facebook, and that he’s interested in building more connections and relationships to other tech policy experts who are ramped up on the implications of the data from virtual and augmented reality. There’s a big role for things like XRSI’s Privacy Framework, my XR Ethics Manifesto, or XR ethics & privacy conferences and discussions. There are a lot more open questions than answers, and it’s reassuring to know that there are people within Facebook who are both listening and participating in these discussions. Given this, now is more important more than ever to continue to work on a broad range of foundational ethics and privacy issues in the XR space.

My closing thought is that there’s still a lot more things that I personally will need to see from Facebook when it comes to having more transparency and accountability that they’re moving beyond these discussions and actually putting this type of advice into action. There’s also a lot more open questions that I have about the relationship between the public and companies like Facebook who are becoming more and more like governments. But the type of government is more like a technological dictatorship rather than any sort of representative democracy that has established protocols for how to interact and respond to the will of people. But at the same time, I’m at least encouraged that these open dialogues are starting to happen, and I hope to continue the conversation with Facebook on many other fronts as well. Overall, it’s a move in the right direction, but I think we all need to see more evidence of how Facebook plans on taking action on this front, and how exactly the plan on living into their four new responsible innovation principles.


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