Pokémon Go: Digital policy in the age of augmented reality

Millions of people are searching for Pokémon worldwide. While Pokémon Go is a fun activity for many people, there are important social, economic, and political dynamics to discover that go beyond the actual game. This page analyses the rising phenomenon of augmented reality and the wider impacts of Pokémon Go on Internet governance issues and overall digital developments.

Pokémon Go and digital policy | Exploring the issues: Infrastructure & standardisation; Security; Human rights; Legal; Economic; Development; Sociocultural | Map of countries

[Update] On 15 September, the Geneva Internet Platform organsed a webinar discussion on Pokémon Politics: Digital Policy in the Age of Augmented Reality; the following resources are now available: the recording, the  presentation, and the webinar digest. Join us for more discussions and digital policy round-ups every last Tuesday of the month. Learn more.

 

Pokémon Go and digital policy

Pokémon Go brings into sharper focus many issues about the ways in which we use the Internet and how the Internet affects our society. Conceptually speaking, Pokémon Go is an in vivo experiment of an interplay between the virtual and physical experiences of our reality.

On a more practical level, this game moves people from houses into the open space, potentially leading to healthier lifestyles, but also to increased accident levels and urban planning challenges. Pokémon Go creates new possibilities for education as well. Learning can become more experimental and fun.

But, as it always goes with technology, Pokémon Go creates security risks. Deeply immersed in search for Pokémon, gamers can endanger themselves and others. Traffic incidents are increasingly reported worldwide.

The security of users and their environment has even triggered the first bans on Pokémon Go, such as in the small French city of Bressolles. Wider concerns have also arisen, mostly related to the impact of the game on national security and religious values, leading to country-wide bans in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Lastly, Pokémon Go is about business. It represents a new way of making money, primarily through its ‘freemium’ business model and the potential of the geospatial data generated by the game’s players.  Wherever there is a money flow, there are questions of taxation and customer protection – to name a few.

 

Exploring the issues

Pokémon Go effectively links the virtual with the territorial dimension. Is there still a separate cyberspace? How will augmented reality change education? Why is the app accessible in some countries but not in others? What are the security implications?

Read our analysis on the impact of the game on each of the digital policy issues. The table below follows the taxonomy used on the GIP Digital Watch observatory, which comprises of 43 issues grouped in seven broad baskets, or categories. Click on the icons to learn more about each issue. Quicklinks: Infrastructure & standardisation; Security; Human rights; Legal; Economic; Development; Sociocultural.

 

INFRASTRUCTURE AND STANDARDISATION
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Telecommunications infrastructure

Augmented reality and virtual reality games will help push 5G networks uptake. Such games require a constant high-quality connectivity and minimal latency, and high-performance computing (processing can be shifted to the cloud which would decrease power consumption of mobile devices).

Technical standards

Technical standards such as GPS standards come into play, as the game uses GPS satellite network for maps of areas around the users’ location.

Web standards

The game is changing the mobile landscape as more companies and developers tap into AR and GPS functionality.

Internet protocol (IP) numbers

Pokémon Go users may experience problems on networks that are IPv6-enabled, as the game is more stable on IPv4. In the USA, Verizon and T-Mobile users have reported such issues, which may mean that developer Niantic did not pay enough attention to making the game IPv6-compatible.

Domain name system (DNS)

There has been a surge in the registration of domain names which include the word ‘Pokemon’, in both gTLDs (both the classic .com and .net, as well as new gTLDs) and ccTLDs. However, as Pokémon is a registered trademark, some of these registrations may be cybersquatting cases. We might soon see court cases, or at least, some interesting UDRP cases.

Root zone

How does Pokémon Go affect issues related to the Internet's root zone?

Network neutrality

T-Mobile (USA) offered its customers a one-year free, unlimited data plan for Pokémon Go gaming, which would not count towards the users’ data cap. Users were able to redeem the offer until 9 August.

Cloud computing

Cloud computing platforms may offer a solution to Pokémon Go service disruptions issues caused by network congestion and traffic spikes. Cloud computing platforms could be configured to scale servers up or down according to demand levels, thus avoiding service disruptions. Amazon has already implied that Niantic could make use of the company’s cloud services. However, there are also suppositions that Pokemon Go is already hosted on Google Cloud Platform.

Convergence

Pokemon Go’s approach of combining the virtual world and the physical world brings into sharper focus the discussion on a convergence between the two worlds in areas other than gaming. One example is the convergence of physical security and cyber security, where access control systems used for the cyber world (such as passwords or two-factor authentication) could be also used to access systems the physical world. What other types of convergence can the augmented reality lead to?

Internet of Things (IoT)

Pokémon Go is seen as a ‘brief insight into the technology our world will wield 10 or even 5 years from now’. Combined with IoT devices and 5G wireless networks, AR technology is expected to lead to much more advanced applications in areas such as health, emergency services, etc.

SECURITY
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Cybersecurity

Pokémon Go can be used for new forms of social engineering, such as luring people to go where they should not be, or do what they normally would not do - for the purpose of exploiting security procedures, obtaining confidential information, etc. Many resources on cybersecurity have surfaced online; one such resource is a flyer on safety tips created by Japan’s National Center of Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity. The Israeli President was criticised after sharing an image of his office, amid security concerns.

Cybercrime

Pokémon suffered a DDoS attack by hacking group PoodleCorp, while Pokémon-themed ransomware was discovered by an independent researcher. Posing as a Pokémon Application for Windows, the ransomware can block the user’s files, and add a backdoor Windows account that spreads to other drives.

Critical infrastructure

Can a ‘human DDoS’ - a gathering of crowds disturb or interfere with the work of a facility or institution?

Child safety online

Children aged 13+ can play Pokémon Go, while younger children require parental consent. Are children circumventing parental consent, and can the developer tackle these cases? Since children are especially vulnerable to online risks, they may need extra guidance. Concerned with the risks, the Japan Lawyers Association for Freedom issued an appeal for children to play safely.

Encryption

Users have expressed concern over encryption. Is the data collected through the game encrypted? Niantic has been called to make such information public

Spam

The game can be utilised by advertisers, such as bringing customers to specific locations for advertising purposes. At what point can this become undesirable? In addition, Pokémon-Go-themed malware could be distributed through spam e-mail campaigns.

Digital signatures

In an effort to crack down the creation of unauthorised Pokémon Go apps and to secure its servers, Niantic has introduced digital signatures on its servers.

HUMAN RIGHTS
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Freedom of expression

Pokémon Go has been banned in a few countries. Can this be seen as a limitation on the individual’s right to expression?

Privacy and data protection

Niantic caused an initial uproar over the level of permissions requested by the game. The company later said it was a mistake, and the game now only requires access to basic account information. However, it transmits the user’s location, in-game messages, phone settings and browser cookies to Niantic. Other concerns include the ability of the app to capture images of the user’s home, and the environment surrounding the user, including other people in the vicinity. The data transmitted by the app, combined with the captured images, could pose privacy risks to the users and those around them. Privacy-related concerns leads one to ask: how much personal data are users willing to give away?

Rights of persons with disabilities

Pokémon Go can be challenging for players with physical disabilities. There have been requests for Niantic to develop a version of the game that would be more friendly or better suited for users with disabilities.

Women's rights online

There have been reports of women being harassed while playing the game.

Other human rights

Other rights include the right to private property. Pokémon Go characters may be introduced in private spaces, such as individuals’ homes. What is the interplay between augmented reality and private property? With regards to access to justice and the right to due process, by agreeing to the game’s terms of use, Pokémon Go users agree to waive their rights to any future trial by jury or class action lawsuit. Users can opt out by informing the company - this can only be done within 30 days of agreeing to the terms of service.

LEGAL
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Jurisdiction

The app has been launched in many countries. However, it has been banned in a few countries, and has been subject to controversy in other parts of the world. View our map. Yet, in countries where the app is available, this has not kept provinces from ruling differently. For example, French town Bressolles has banned Pokémon Go as it distracts drivers and renders pedestrians inattentive

Arbitration

By agreeing to the app’s terms of service, users agree that disputes are to be resolved only through binding, individual arbitration

Copyright

Users retain copyright over their content. However, users grant Niantic the non-exclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide, and royalty-free license to use, copy, modify, and create derivative works based upon publicly displayed, publicly performed, and distributed user content

Trademarks

The surge in the registration of domain names that include the registered trademark ‘Pokémon’ (see DNS) can lead to disputes.

Labour law

Not all employers are keen on the game. Volkswagen employees were banned from playing the game on fears of corporate espionage, as the app uses location data, device cameras and data sharing. Aerospace company Boeing issued a similar ban for its employees over safety concerns.

Intermediaries

Should the company be held liable if players break into private property (or enter unauthorised governmental space, as countries have expressed concern)? Would it be co-responsible for damages to property or injury to people? A court case will soon address the extent of liability. In addition, social corporate responsibility and questions related to ethics are being examined.

ECONOMIC
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E-commerce

The market value of the developer rose by billions of dollars in a matter of days; the rise in popularity took the developer by surprise. The fact that Uber owns no cars, AirBnB owns no property, and Pokémon Go - arguably - is ‘just some markers on a map’, highlights the business models of Internet e-commerce phenomena.

E-money and virtual currencies

The app uses PokeCoins, a type of currency which is used to purchase almost every item located in the shop, with the exclusion of PokeCoins themselves.

Consumer protection

The game raises several issues related to consumer protection, from security and privacy concerns in the online world, to other concerns linked purely to the offline world. The responsibility of companies with regards to consumer protection and the rights of users - among other area - is under debate

Taxation

Pokémon Go makes money by selling add-on items in the app (the game itself is free); according to the ‘freemium business model’. In California, the sales of electronic data products are not taxable (see comprehensive Internet tax law). However, Pennsylvania levies a 6% tax on digital downloads, while UK businesses that provide digital services to consumers are responsible for charging VAT. Given the different rules, the question remains: if taxes apply, will they be based on the user’s location, or on the company’s place of business? Apart from indirect, VAT taxes, Niantic will be faced with income tax obligations, but again, the geographical dilemma makes it difficult to know where to tax the company. Another financial consideration is that if advanced gamers sell their account, such transactions would be taxed, at least in the USA.

Economic - other issues

A Michigan couple is suing Niantic/Pokemon/Nintendo for nuisance caused by players, and for unfair enrichment of the companies. The class action suit is seeking a percentage of ‘all revenues generated by Pokemon Go.’ In addition, the app is inspiring new ‘entrepreneurs’ to play the game of behalf of users, for a certain amount of money

DEVELOPMENT
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Access

Small towns, rural villages, and areas which are home to minority groups have fewer Pokémon Go locations, prompting arguments that Niantic should step in.

Digital divide

The game requires on a reliable Internet connection and mobile phone. In addition, Pokémon locations may be unavailable in some regions due to crowd-sourcing, but also in regions where Google Maps has a low presence. Although the game was officially been launched in several countries, there has not yet been an official release in any African countries, and large parts of Asia have not yet officially been connected to Pokémon Go. Nevertheless, many people in these regions do play the game using APK files to download the game in their country. With Niantic announcing that the game will become available in 200 countries, it may be just a matter of time.

Capacity development

In the light of the issues involved, users may need to develop an understanding of the risks and how these can be tackled. For example, privacy and security-related issues require users to exercise caution. The same can be said for e-commerce and legal aspects that also come into play.

Development

Pokémon Go can alleviate public health problems, as users must move around to play the game. More specifically, Pokemon Go is said to help against mental health problems, most notably anxiety and depression, and also autism. Yet, there are also negative effects: armed robbers use the game to lure players into traps; the game can lead to heavy ‘foot traffic’ that urban planners had not accounted for; it can lead to accidents if it is played in cars. Japan has issued guidelines asking users not to play it on train platforms, and an NGO in Bosnia warned players to look out for landmines when catching Pokémon. On Twitter, France’s Minister of Social Affairs and Health warned users to be alert when playing Pokémon go (‘A tous les dresseurs: sortez, marchez, c’est bon pour la santé! Mais restez bien attentifs pour éviter l’accident. Bonne chasse!’)

SOCIOCULTURAL
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Content policy

Islamic leaders in India and Malaysia issued fatwas over concerns that the game is addictive. Saudi Arabia’s ban is linked to a 2001 fatwa against the Pokemon franchise. Similarly, Egypt’s religious body has declared the game to be un-Islamic. Iran has banned Pokémon Go over security concerns. Thai authorities have requested Niantic to remove sensitive locations from the game. In Russia, concerns have arisen about potential hidden dangers; in South Korea, the game has not been released due to security restrictions on the use of online mapping data. In mainland China, Google services have been banned by the Great Firewall, as the app uses Google Maps. In Indonesia, government officials have warned that Pokémon Go is a national threat; Israeli soldiers have been banned over concerns for security breaches.

Cultural diversity

Some see the game as having a potentially negative impact on cultural and religious values. In an example, religious body in Egypt bans Egyptian muslims from playing the game. Similar cases in India, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia (see Content policy).

Multilingualism

Some see the game as having a potentially negative impact on cultural and religious values. In an example, religious body in Egypt bans Egyptian muslims from playing the game. Similar cases in India, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia (see Content policy).

Online education

Over the past weeks, a number of blogs have fuelled the debate on the educational potential of the game. The Open University has summed up the potential of AR for education: ‘changing interaction with learning environments; providing new approaches to skill development; introducing new content; and reshaping how learning takes place.’ There are other educational potentials, ranging from helping users learn more about geography, to acquiring new social skills. Another blog argues that AR be a model for online teaching.

 

Map of countries

The interactive map shows the countries which have adopted or banned the game, and the countries in which the game is controversial.

 


 

 

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