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Sovereignty on a server: Meet the digital nation of Tuvalu

As a desperate Tuvalu, sinking due to global warming, becomes the world’s first nation to replicate itself on the Metaverse, questions about sovereignty and citizenship arise.


RECENTLY, the South-Pacific island nation of Tuvalu decided to shift its territorial and cultural identity onto Metaverse. Its Minister for Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, Simon Kofe, speaking at the 2022 United Nation Climate Change Conference, highlighted that due to drastic climate change, there is a continuous rise in the global sea level, due to which the island nation may not be able to survive by the end of this century; thus, in order to safeguard its culture and tradition, the island nation would be creating a virtual replica of itself on the Metaverse.

This certainly seems like a novel idea to highlight the very potent issue of climate change and its drastic effect on human civilisation. This is not the first time Tuvalu has employed a unique method for bringing the issue of climate change into the limelight. At the 2021 United Nation Climate Change Conference, the minister had addressed the gathering by standing in knee-high sea water in an attempt to draw attention to the question of climate change and rising sea-level.

Also read: Why India should start framing a law for the Metaverse

Question of sovereignty

However, there are certain legal and anthropological questions which by default become a part of this transition. The first question is pertaining to the sovereignty of the nation: will the sovereignty of Tuvalu be shifted to the world of virtual reality, even though the ownership of Metaverse as a platform lies with the American multinational technology company Meta?

This is an intricate question. The world of virtual reality is based on an immersive technology, giving life-like experience to the user. The initial idea of Metaverse was to provide a social interaction platform, but with time, people are realising the economic benefits underlying the platform. There are companies filing for trademark and copyright registration for their brands and products on the platform, knowing well that there are possibilities of infringement of their intellectual property in the virtual world.

However, as far as the issue of sovereignty of a nation shifting to the virtual world is concerned, there are two prime questions which need to be answered: How do we define ‘sovereignty’, and can a digital nation be recognised by the United Nations?

Conceptually, the idea of sovereignty is seen as being strongly tied with the idea of the State. In legal parlance, this means that the State is the supreme entity, beyond which lies no other supreme superanus. In political science, sovereignty may manifest itself in different forms: be it titular sovereignty, or de facto or de jure sovereignty, so there is no one way for delineating the idea of the sovereign.

Thus, there is no subject limitation as to how sovereignty may be captured. A digital nation with no territorial existence, yet able to safeguard its unique cultural and traditional ethos through the means of the Metaverse may well be a unique way of seeing a sovereign entity. However, sovereignty is attached with the ‘State’, and the definition of ‘State’ hovers around four elements: population, territory, government and sovereignty.

Will the sovereignty of Tuvalu be shifted to the virtual reality world, even though the ownership of Metaverse as a platform lies with the American multinational technology company Meta Platforms Inc.?

Even if Metaverse Tuvalu has sovereignty and a governing mechanism, it will not have physical territory and its population may either be scattered around the world, engendering questions about personal and territorial jurisdiction, as their citizenship will be limited to a digital avatar. Will they have dual citizenship, one of the physical country in which they live, and one in the world of virtual reality? This creates a conceptual distortion of the existing understanding of the modern-day ‘State’, unless the modern day nation-State concept accepts meta-land as a replicate or substitute of physical territory.

Also read: Our legal system is still not ready to regulate users’ behaviour on the metaverse

Question of ownership

The other question revolves around the virtual platform, knowing that the creation of or even buying of any virtual land is majorly an act of entering into a contract with the platform. Wherein, the supreme ownership still lies with the platform, and a sort of licence is given by the platform to the user to enjoy the services offered by it. Would this not create an ownership problem?

If a digital nation is created on the Metaverse, then Meta Platforms, Inc., a corporation, has ownership of the cultural heritage of Tuvalu and of the nation itself; this hypothetically creates a sovereignty problem, as the ultimate authority on the creation of more land and the software underlying it is with the platform. So if tomorrow, Metaverse stops its services for any reason, the whole cultural identity of the State comes to an end. Thus, there cannot be a digital nation without the services of a platform. This dependency on a corporation subdues to a large extent the sovereign aspect of the State.

A better route towards ensuring a more viable solution for a digital nation will be for it to create servers and an independent digital platform of its own, which will ensure more independence. However, that will require creation of solid data-centres ensuring fluent data-flow as well as electric capacity to maintain such servers, since there is a huge amount of electricity consumption in data centres. Where will these servers and the electricity grid feeding them be housed? In the embassies of Tuvalu?

Question of citizens’ rights

Another aspect which needs to be touched upon is the rights of citizens: once shifted to the digital space, what sort of rights can the citizens of Tuvalu claim? Fundamentally being users on the Metaverse, will their rights accrue against the State of Tuvalu, or against the Metaverse as a contractee or licensee, simply using their services?

If a digital nation is created on Metaverse, then Meta has ownership of the cultural heritage of Tuvalu and of the nation itself; this hypothetically creates a sovereignty problem, as the ultimate authority on the creation of more land and the software underlying it is with the platform.

If Tuvalu is able to create a separate space for its users on the platform, with only accessibility by the citizens of Tuvalu, then a citizen of Tuvalu could surely claim for a right to access to the platform. The right to access is one of the most recognised digital rights across the world today, mainly because it gives rights to the users whose data is being processed to know the whereabouts of the data. As Tuvalu will be creating a replica of the physical Tuvalu, a right to access will accrue for the citizens of Tuvalu to access the digital replica of their land.

The other question pertains to the operational cost of living in a virtual world: who will bear the cost of headgears or other devices required for enhanced experience in the Metaverse? Will the State of Tuvalu sponsor it, or will it simply be a digital museum, accessible by any person to see the cultural reminiscence of a nation?

Also read: Legal issues galore around digital economy

At present, Tuvalu has a website, by the name of, enunciating ‘The First Digital Nation’ mark. There is still a long way to go in this direction. Surely, in the near future, more countries will follow suit. Interestingly, South Korea has created a replica of its capital Seoul on the Metaverse. The administration will be using the Metaverse Seoul as an important communication tool for its citizens.

The core question boils down to this: what is the purpose underlying the replication of a State on Metaverse? Is it merely to safeguard the memory of a cultural heritage, or to be a tool of communication? All things said and done, it will not be an easy task to shift an entire population to a virtual world. At present, it seems a desperate Tuvalu is trying to keep its nose above water by creating a digital memory of its land in the virtual world.

The Leaflet