What price should be put on making the “metaverse” safe? According to aspiring “metaverse company” Facebook, it’s $50m – or 0.0006 of the social media juggernaut’s annual revenue.

Facebook on Monday announced an XR Programs and Research Fund, which will see the tech giant spend $50m over two years on “external research” to build the metaverse “responsibly”.

The metaverse – described by GlobalData thematic research as a “virtual world where users share experiences and interact in real-time within simulated scenarios” – is yet to become a reality.

But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has already told the world that he expects Facebook to become “a metaverse company“.

Now, in a blog post authored by Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook Reality Labs and former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, now Facebook VP of global affairs, the web giant introduced its new metaverse research fund as “a starting point”.

It will see Facebook collaborate “with industry partners, civil rights groups, governments, non-profits and academic institutions to determine how to build these technologies responsibly”.

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The areas of focus are equity and inclusion, safety and integrity, economic opportunity, and privacy.

Among Facebook’s initial partners is the Organization of American States, Africa No Filter and Women In Immersive Tech.

External research institutions so far include Seoul National University, the National University of Singapore and Howard University.

But the $50m is still just 0.01, or 1%, of the $5bn per year that Facebook is estimated to be spending on metaverse-related development – a figure that the social media giant hasn’t disputed in the past. It’s just 0.0006 of annual revenue – and in fact the paltry sum is to be spent over two years, not one.

Facebook has over the past decade received heavy criticism for the safety of its platform. This has stemmed among other things from multiple privacy breaches, most notably the Cambridge Analytica scandal that resulted in a $5bn Federal Trade Commission fine, the spread of Covid-19 misinformation and much other harmful content on its platform.

Zuckerberg wants Facebook to become a metaverse company

Zuckerberg has said that the metaverse will be an “embodied internet” that will not be run by any one company – including Facebook.

But the CEO believes there is a business opportunity that aligns with its current ventures to the extent that Facebook will eventually become a metaverse company.

Its virtual reality division, which makes the Oculus Quest headset, will be one way in which people can join the metaverse.

Zuckerberg says he doesn’t see this as a moneymaker, though. He has said that the aim is to make Oculus Quest headsets as affordable as possible to encourage more people to join the metaverse. Once they are in it, Facebook plans to profit from advertising – its current core revenue driver at $84.2bn in sales for 2020 – and from the sale of virtual goods.

Games such as Fortnite and Roblox have shown a blueprint for how this might work, with free to play games generating income from sales of digital items such as character outfits.

But Zuckerberg sees the metaverse as a more encompassing virtual environment that blends with the real world and has maximum interoperability between platforms. For example, virtual items purchased on one platform could stay in a person’s inventory or on their avatar in another environment.

Other technology executives also see potential in the metaverse for businesses. The metaverse concept, which was first widely publicised by the 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, has also been promoted by Microsoft, with CEO Satya Nadella stating his intention to build an “enterprise metaverse”. Facebook has also shown an appetite for business use cases with the launch of Facebook Workrooms.

Facebook Workrooms will take the form of a mixed-reality, cloud-based meeting app that can teleport a person digitally to a remote location for shared experiences. This enterprise-grade metaverse is supposed to be ideal for work revolving around 3D physical models.

Should the metaverse become the next phase in the evolution of social media – or the internet itself – then it will come with the same risks.

“To protect all aspects of data privacy, the virtual platform must implement privacy by design, something that is already required of technologies crucial to the metaverse such as AR and VR,” Charlotte Newton, thematic research analyst at GlobalData, previously told Verdict. “You cannot retroactively apply these privacy systems – they must be built in from scratch. Plus, the scale of the metaverse, accommodating millions of users, will make it even more difficult to control.”

According to GlobalData’s thematic scorecards, Facebook currently ranks 26th in the social media category. It scores poorly for data privacy and antitrust – themes that it will need to improve upon to avoid further attention from regulators in its metaverse efforts.

The tech industry has historically had problems with a lack of diversity in its personnel and possibly-related unintentional bias in products, something that Facebook is perhaps attempting to address with its new yet minuscule metaverse safety funding.

“We also need to involve the human rights and civil rights communities from the start to ensure these technologies are built in a way that’s inclusive and empowering,” Facebook PRs Clegg and Bosworth added.