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What challenges could the metaverse bring to the workplace?

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Lewis Silkin Ireland’s Linda Hynes explores some of the legal issues that may come up if the future of work is in the metaverse.

The metaverse is a virtual world, that uses augmented and virtual reality (VR), where people can meet and interact with one another. For many employers, the first experience of it may come from using VR tools to holding conferences and events.

Microsoft has said it will be adding 3D virtual avatars and environments to Teams this year so it may be coming to a workplace near you soon. Eventually, employees may spend more time doing their jobs in a virtual world, which could be another pivotal change in the workplace, following other changes brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

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The metaverse offers many benefits, for example the ability to work remotely in a more connected way with colleagues – but it also brings up a range of new Irish employment law issues and challenges.

Diversity, inclusion and avatar design

You need an avatar to take part in the metaverse. In the online gaming world, choosing a character or avatar is mainly about digital escapism.

When the metaverse reaches workplaces, it’s more likely that people will choose more photoreal avatars – ones that look like themselves or, at least, how they perceive themselves to be. Avatars, however, may generate some issues around diversity and inclusion.

An early issue for employers could be jokes or offensive comments about people’s choice of avatar, particularly given the initial novelty of VR in the workplace. This could fall under the category of bullying, harassment or sexual harassment under the Irish equality legislation.

There could also be disputes about avatars which deliberately poke fun at others, for example an avatar which looks like a public persona but with certain traits emphasised.

Irish employment law would allow employers to discipline employees for such inappropriate behaviour, although HR departments may need to develop and enforce guidelines around avatars and ways of working in the metaverse, as happened with social media use when it became an everyday part of the workplace.

Irish equality law currently recognises nine protected grounds against which a person should not be discriminated. These include gender, disability, race and age. Some of these grounds may be visible in real life and others may not, but the metaverse could disrupt this.

Which protected grounds will be visible and which will not in the new VR world? Oculus says it is looking at subtle differences and emphasising just how customisable its avatars are going to be.

The invitation to pick an avatar that reflects the real you raises a range of diversity issues. Will some employees gain the benefit of picking avatars that express their real gender identity? Will others find ways to show characteristics that they cannot easily show in real life, such as autism?

Will others be frustrated by not being able to select an avatar that represents their combination of protected characteristics? When would it be OK for employees to ‘try on’ protected characteristics they don’t have?

What about recruitment exercises that use VR? Are these issues which employers will be expected to regulate and what will it mean, for example, for unconscious bias which is a problem that already exists in workplaces?

Research shows that women are more likely to experience motion sickness when using VR. How will this be dealt with by employers? If VR as part of the working day is insisted on by the employer, is this discriminatory towards women? Could it widen the gender gap in workplaces if female employees don’t want to engage in VR because it makes them feel ill?

Online harassment applies in metaverse

Irish employment equality legislation has a wide definition of sexual harassment, which is any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Harassment in relation to any of the protected grounds is also prohibited as is any form of unwanted conduct related to any of the discriminatory grounds.

In both sexual harassment and harassment, the conduct is defined as having the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.

This could include the workplace in the metaverse. Employers can be held vicariously liable for acts of bullying, harassment and discrimination of employees carried out by employees on social media sites so the same would extend to the metaverse. Proper training and measures to reduce potential metaverse bullying and harassment will need to be considered.

Metaverse misconduct

Many types of misconduct in the metaverse will be covered by existing employer policies and Irish employment law, but policies may need to be amended to make it clear that working in the metaverse is still a workplace.

For example, colleagues who are abusive to each other in a virtual environment would be subject to normal disciplinary rules. Unfair dismissal law will apply in the same way it does now and conduct in the virtual workplace will be subject to investigation and fair procedure as it is with ‘real’ working – although investigating the VR environment could present logistical challenges for employers.

Will new types of misconduct emerge in the metaverse? For example, if the metaverse is going to include non-player characters (NPCs) like the online gaming world, ie, characters not controlled by an employee, will being rude to an NPC virtual assistant count as an act of misconduct, or will attacking an NPC virtual assistant represent an act of harassment?

Can employees be disciplined for this behaviour? Will this type of behaviour go against the culture and values of the organisation?

Other metaverse issues

The metaverse raises a host of other workplace issues, which may not be addressed by existing employment laws.

Jurisdictional issues: People in the virtual world can be anywhere in the real world, so whose employment laws will apply?

Risks to confidential information and security: In the ‘anyone-could-be-anyone’ world of the metaverse, will there be more hacks or corporate espionage?

Health and safety: Can you wear a VR headset all day long or will there be health and safety risks? Should the risk of cyberbullying in the metaverse be considered by employers in their risk assessments under health and safety law?

Ownership in the metaverse: Will non-compete and IP clauses need updating? Could metaverse providers access or use company information which is shared within their environment?

Employment status and working time: As new ways of working emerge, which ones will be defined as employment relationships? If you are online as your avatar, is this working time that should be recorded and monitored? Working time obligations are already in conflict with remote and flexible working patterns that have emerged since the Covid-19 pandemic began, how will they deal with the metaverse?

Being avatar ready

While we won’t see workplace relations claims brought by Warlock999 naming Bigboss1 as a respondent for a while, this could happen in the future. Previously, employers and employment law dispute forums and courts have had to catch up with the use of social media platforms by employees.

The law will no doubt also need to get to grips with the range of new issues that will come with working in the metaverse. A VR workplace could offer exciting opportunities, but employers will need to be conscious of the good and the bad when their employee avatars assemble in the future.

By Linda Hynes

Linda Hynes is a partner at Lewis Silkin Ireland in the employment, immigration and reward division.

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NFT sales hit 12-month low after cryptocurrency crash | Non-fungible tokens (NFTs)

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Non-fungible tokens have been swept up in the cryptocurrency crash as sales reached a 12-month low in June.

NFTs confer ownership of a unique digital item – often a piece of virtual art – upon someone, even if that item can be easily copied. Ownership is recorded on a digital, decentralised ledger known as a blockchain.

Sales of NFTs totalled just over $1bn (£830m) in June, according to the crypto research firm Chainalysis, their worst performance since the same month last year when sales were $648m. Sales reached a peak of $12.6bn in January.

“This decline is definitely linked to the broader slowdown in crypto markets,” said Ethan McMahon, a Chainalysis economist.

“Times like this inevitably lead to consolidation within the affected markets, and for NFTs we will likely see a pullback in terms of the collections and types of NFTs that reach prominence.”

The cryptocurrency market, worth about $3tn last November, is now worth less than $1tn.

NFTs rely on a blockchain – the decentralised ledger first used by bitcoin to track ownership of the cryptocurrency – to record who owns them and allow them to be traded. Most are based on the Ethereum blockchain, which is maintained through a carbon-intensive system called proof of work.

NFT chart

At its peak, the NFT market was attracting vaulting sums including $2.9m for a token of the first tweet by Twitter’s cofounder Jack Dorsey. A digital collage by the visual artist Beeple sold for $69m; the main token for the “play to earn” video game Axie Infinity hit a total value of $9.75bn; and Coca-Cola raised more than $575,000 from selling digital items such as a customised jacket to be worn in the metaverse.

According to the Chainalysis data, NFT sales peaked in January. In April an attempt to sell on the Dorsey NFT was abandoned when bids topped out at $14,000.

However, demand for so-called blue chip NFT collections has held up, according to DappRadar, a firm that tracks NFTs and blockchain-based video games.

The price of the cheapest NFT in the Bored Ape Yacht Club has declined by only 1%, to $90,00o, over the last month, according to DappRadar’s head of research, Pedro Herrera. “Blue chip collections are performing vastly better than the vast majority of NFTs,” he said.

NFT sales reached $40bn last year and the 2022 total has already exceeded that, at more than $42bn, according to Chainalysis. Sales in January and February accounted for more than half of the 2022 total so far.

The cryptocurrency market has come under pressure amid volatility in the wider stock markets, amid fears over rising inflation and higher interest rates, which have dampened appetite for riskier assets including tech stocks and digital assets.

Faith in crypto assets has also been shaken by the collapse of Terra, a so-called stablecoin whose value was supposed to be pegged to the US dollar, and troubles at crypto-related financial institutions such as the Celsius Network, a lender that has paused withdrawals.

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We speak to Purism’ CEO about the Librem 5 USA smartphone • The Register

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Interview In June, Purism began shipping a privacy-focused smartphone called Librem 5 USA that runs on a version of Linux called PureOS rather than Android or iOS. As the name suggests, it’s made in America – all the electronics are assembled in its Carlsbad, California facility, using as many US-fabricated parts as possible.

While past privacy-focused phones, such as Silent Circle‘s Android-based Blackphone failed to win much market share, the political situation is different now than it was seven years ago.

Supply-chain provenance has become more important in recent years, thanks to concerns about the national security implications of foreign-made tech gear. The Librem 5 USA comes at a cost, starting at $1,999, though there are now US government agencies willing to pay that price for homegrown hardware they can trust – and evidently tech enthusiasts, too.

We first wrote about the Librem 5 smartphone in 2017, considering it a privacy-centric device with a Linux OS. The Librem 5 USA, as noted, tries to use American companies with US fabrication “whenever possible.” It has a 5.7-inch 720×1440 screen with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and a user-replaceable 4,500mAh battery.

The goal is to produce a phone that can be trusted from the hardware to the OS and apps, something that Apple and Google have become vocal about, too.

The Register spoke with Todd Weaver, founder and CEO of Purism, about how things are going.

Weaver said Purism is about two weeks away from actually holding stock and selling phones, which isn’t something the company, which began with crowdfunding, has previously had to do. In the past, people have pledged funds with orders, and it has later fulfilled them; now it’s building inventory in anticipation of sales.

“We’re actually transitioning to holding stock and pushing sales,” he explained. “We’ve never had to do that before. We’ve never had to do outbound sales.”

The phone, to start at the hardware level on up, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware

Previously, said Weaver, the company’s growth has been a result of inbound requests for its products based on the material it has published about its projects.

“The phone, to kind of start at the hardware level on up, all the way to the operating system, is our manufactured hardware,” said Weaver. “It runs on a CPU that is not normally in phones.”

That would be a quad-core Arm Cortex-A53 i.MX8M running at 1.5GHz. Weaver said Purism isolated the device’s baseband modem from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth “so that you can actually turn it off with a hardware kill switch. That basically becomes the ultimate in security.”

A key thing to realize here is that baseband modems are effectively small computers running in handsets and handle the cellular communications; if a modem is compromised or made to run rogue firmware, it can potentially take over the rest of the device, hence Purism’s desire to isolate it, if the user so wishes. In fact, it has three hardware kill switches: one to cut off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, one for cellular, and one for the microphone and cameras. All three will cut off GPS, too.

The main printed circuit board assembly (PCBA) is made by Purism in the US, and its microprocessor, from Dutch semiconductor maker NXP, is also made stateside.

The chip, Weaver explained, “is normally in airplanes, in commercial-grade devices, and in cars. It’s a quad-core CPU. But the reason we had to do that was we wanted to properly isolate. So in every other phone that’s made, the baseband modem – the cellular modem – is attached to memory and CPU. Fundamentally the carriers have firmware access that’s lower than the operating system.”

To make the phone secure, Weaver said, to protect privacy and individual freedoms, Purism had to consider security at the hardware level and move up the stack.

“There are all sorts of ways that has to be solved,” he said. “We solve it from the hardware, software, applications, data, and even services.”

The point, said Weaver, is to be able to just take the device and have peace of mind and control over your own digital life.

“We started in 2014, initially just crowdfunding laptops,” said Weaver. “My goal was to produce phones. But I knew that I had to increment through because we had to show that we can manufacture devices. We can do hardware, software, and services. Our model is very similar to Apple in that regard – we produce hardware and we have an operating system that’s married to it, so that it works.

“And then we also include services that fully respect you. If you had an iPhone or an Android phone and a Purism phone like Librem 5 sitting all next to each other, the iPhone will leak probably about three gigabytes of data without doing anything. Android devices are worse. Ours will leak exactly zero bits – nothing is sent without your explicit interaction, to make a request for weather information or browsing the web.”

Research last year suggested Android and iOS beam back telemetry to base even when users opt out of these transmissions, and a complaint was raised in 2020 over what appeared to be Android’s mysterious wireless data transfers.

While working toward phone manufacturing with the release of the Librem laptop, mini PC, and servers, Weaver explained his company was refining PureOS, its Linux distribution. “It’s our operating system that doesn’t have any mystery code in it,” said Weaver. “It’s all the source code, from the bootloader on up.”

Librem 14

Purism’s quest against Intel’s Management Engine black box CPU now comes in 14 inches

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Purism, said Weaver, has been working on modifying the PureOS Linux kernel to conserve energy when idle.

“A lot of the things Android initially did to Linux, we are doing to mainline Linux, so that we can actually have these things idle down better,” he said. “Basically, it’s a better way to do nothing.”

He also said the processor tends toward the toasty side. “We pushed really hard with NXP, modified a bunch of Linux kernel development, so that we could get that cooler. It’s just that CPU runs hot. The next iteration, we’ll be using probably I.MX9 … that’s still probably two years away.”

Weaver also said some thought is being given to the possibility of soldering the currently modular modem in place, which would allow for thinner devices and would please government agencies that see a removable component as a security issue.

Asked what sorts of things are possible with a Librem phone that Android and iOS devices don’t offer, Weaver cited the way tethering works. Mobile providers often charge extras for tethering, but with a Librem 5 phone data is just data. He also pointed to disk encryption with user-controlled keys and chat applications that can handle multiple protocols, such as SMS, MMS, XMPP, and Matrix.

For people who want an alternative to Android or iOS, Weaver said it’s an easy sale. “I almost have to back them off to say that, you know, not all your apps are going to run there,” he said. “It’s got calls, text messaging, browsing the web, a calculator, but not Snapchat.”

It’s got calls, text messaging, browsing the web, a calculator, but not Snapchat

Given the benefit Apple and Google get from their respective app stores, it’s not surprising that Purism is trying to deal with what Weaver calls “the App Gap” – the vast number of mobile apps not available on PureOS at the moment.

“Initially, we developed a lot of the core applications,” said Weaver. “We also wrote a library that allows for all the existing GNU/Linux-based applications to shrink down and run on our mobile phone. So by doing that, you don’t have to write a new application, it’s just include our library, and it will now work on the phone.”

That takes some effort, Weaver conceded, and Purism has produced documentation and helped Linux developers adapt their existing apps.

Purism is also enhancing its PureOS Store by partnering with a group that’s funding Interledger, an open payment network federation system.

“We’re actually going to be adding to PureOS Store, which is equivalent to Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store, where we allow for people to charge a subscription or charge for an app,” said Weaver. “And then we also have the ability to pay bounties even, for apps that are really needed that aren’t yet developed. So basically, the solution to fill the App Gap is cash.”

“You have to incentivize developers by ‘Hey, you can get paid,'” he elaborated. “The ecosystem grows and also actually puts money towards that effort. Our business model – by selling hardware with high enough margin, having services that are attached – allows us to basically reinvest to fill the App Gap.”

Privacy has always been a tough sell in the tech industry, at least in a mass market context. But over the past decade, the Snowden revelations about the extent of government information gathering, constant privacy scandals, the online ad industry’s unrepentant intrusiveness, pushback against Big Tech and surveillance capitalism, and the always sorry state of data security have buoyed interest in privacy. Add to that trade tensions with China and the supply chain nationalism that has followed, not to mention competition and privacy regulations emerging in the US, UK, and EU, and it looks like an opportunity.

“We’re not make-or-break off any one of those issues,” said Weaver, “but by fundamentally targeting civil liberties, individual freedoms, and privacy rights, then all of those things come out, and as they do, we see an influx of sales.”

“We have devices in every letter-agency in the US and some governments from outside the US,” said Weaver. “And those devices can vary from air gap laptops, to phones and even phone service.”

Weaver declined to discuss Purism’s financial situation in detail, but said the Librem 5 crowdfunding campaign raised $2 million.

“Since then, we’ve grown by triple digits year over year and even during COVID-19, we had a growth year,” he explained. “So overall, our sales have continued to increase. And we’ve grown mostly from revenue, but we’ve also taken on north of $12 million in investment.”

Weaver said the total available market is huge – billions of people have cell phones.

‘When you’re looking at somebody who cares about privacy rights, or they care about ‘I don’t like Big Tech,’ or ‘I don’t like the duopoly a mobile phone the space,’ or ‘I don’t like the intrusion,’ or I would like to advance civil liberties,’ every one of those areas is a potential customer,” said Weaver. “And those areas are immense. So we have not had a demand problem. We have had a supply problem, from parts to actual availability.

“We lost probably about two years on specific parts to actually manufacture this device in the US. China still has a shortage. We’ve never had that lack of interest. Once we get to the point of actually holding stock, then we’re going to be able to resume promoting.”

Soon, then. ®

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This start-up is offering stressed techies the chance to switch off at its cabins

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Slow Cabins is coming to Ireland and aiming to tap into the trend for low-impact, sustainable, digital-free tourism.

A hospitality rental company targeting techies who want to digitally detox is preparing to welcome its first guests in Ireland.

Founded in 2017, Slow Cabins seeks to offer people the opportunity to spend time away from their tech lives in relaxed, remote and eco-friendly surroundings.

It is currently taking bookings in Ireland and will open its first cabins here from 1 August. As well as Ireland, the start-up has operations in Belgium and the Netherlands.

All of its cabin locations are secret to purposely encourage guests to switch off and detox from their day-to-day stresses. Guests book their cabins without knowing the exact location, but all cabins are located within a two-and-a-half hour drive from major cities.

Within about two weeks of the trip, guests receive details with the exact location of their cabin. Even then, they may have to park their cars and hike to get to their accommodation.

The idea behind Slow Cabins comes from low-impact and sustainable tourism. Cabins are equipped with queen-sized beds, log burners, solar panels, dry toilets, fire pits, grills and large windows. Each cabin is powered naturally by sunlight and water.

“Recent European studies show that our resilience improves and stress levels decrease by up to 70pc after a stay in nature,” said Slow Cabins Ireland director Matthew Parkinson.

“Getting away from it all brings peace, energy and a sense of perspective. And that’s where Slow Cabins have an interesting role to play in a fast ‘always-on’ society. Profit is not our only goal, but rather a means to create more positive social and environmental impact,” he added.

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