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The collective internet struggles with misinformation, toxicity and censorship. In countries around the world, this is exacerbated by social media networks being restricted or even controlled by the government.
Not only does this damage the foundations of freedom of expression and collaboration on which the Internet is built, but it also alienates entire demographics from the opportunity to engage in global dialogue and understanding.
While the early iterations of the metaverse have begun to face similar challenges, it also holds promise for a more decentralized architecture of the web, which could help mitigate some of these problems. In the old Internet, content can be easily tracked, monitored and censored, but Web3 could create a more secure means of authentication and thus enable the creation of truly protected digital speech.
Censorship on the Centralized Web
Much of the centralized web is controlled by a few actors who can manipulate what users see. This has led to rampant censorship and control of information, as well as harassment and abuse of vulnerable groups. In some countries, the government restricts or controls social media networks. This means that people are unable to raise their voices or express their opinions freely.
For example, as China faces heightened criticism of its zero-COVID policy, the country is censoring social media platforms, search engines, and even individual posts. In fact, a recent proposal would require by the Chinese government that all online comments be reviewed to ensure they are consistent with the party narrative.
Furthermore, China’s approach to the Uyghur minority has angered the international community. The Chinese government has been accused of mass surveillance, forced labor and even genocide against the Uyghur people. In response, China has censored social media platforms, significantly restricting and using Internet access in the Xinjiang region artificial intelligence to monitor and control the Uyghur people.
China is not alone. As Russia faces a population questioning its foreign policy decisions, the government is exerting pressure on platforms to censor content and restrict user access. Russia has a long history of internet censorship and it is now reaching new heights.
These are just a few examples of how social media networks are used to control and censor information. The centralized nature of the web makes it easy for those in power to manipulate what users see and silence dissenting voices.
The metaverse has no unambiguous definition, but its ultimate goal is to provide a community-based, distributed, 3D Internet where users can create avatars and interact with each other in digital spaces.
The censorship in Web2 is possible because of its centralized nature. The web is a series of tubes and those in power can easily shut off the taps. The metaverse is a solution to this problem, as it is more censorship resistant architecturally. With the underlying data stored on a decentralized network of nodes, it is much more difficult for authorities to censor or control information.
Furthermore, the metaverse can be used to create ‘safe spaces’ for vulnerable groups. For example, NFTs can be used as gateways to protected areas where only certain people have access. This would enable marginalized groups to communicate with each other in a safe and secure environment.
To give another example: the virtual world that Personal Boundary has implemented safety features like a “four-foot zone of personal space” around users’ avatars, and Roblox has strong security features in place, including machine detection of unsafe content and rigorous chat filters. However, Roblox is not immune to safety concerns as there have been reports of children being cared for by extremists on the platform, highlighting the importance of designing comprehensive security features in virtual worlds.
The venture builder and consultancy newkinco initiated anitya space, a white label solution that allows brands and influencers to create their own metaverse experiences. Newkinco works with organizations such as the Goethe Institutea German cultural association active in 158 locations worldwide and Stories from us, a multimedia production company, to create cultural experiences in the metaverse. Tales of Us communicates with children, teens and their caregivers to reach a global audience and share stories at the intersection of culture, community and nature. Working with both organizations, they explored how to gamify an immersive learning experience while protecting diverse digital safe spaces.
This is just the beginning. As the metaverse becomes more popular, it will become a space for cultural exchange and exchange, leading to a more inclusive and diverse web.
The metaverse is not a panacea for the ills of the centralized web. In fact, we’ve already seen some of the worst aspects of the web play out in virtual worlds.
A major issue is “grieving”, which is when users harass or abuse others in digital spaces. This can take the form of flames, trolls, doxxes and even virtual attack. Grief is a serious problem in multiplayer games like Second Life and Roblox, but it has also been a problem in mainstream online spaces.
Another problem is the “Wild West” feel of the metaverse. There are no rules or regulations that dictate what can and cannot be done in virtual worlds. This lack of governance can lead to a sense of lawlessness, which can be dangerous for users.
Finally, the metaverse is still in its infancy. The technical infrastructure is still being built and there are very few “killer apps” that would make the metaverse essential for users.
The metaverse is a promising solution to the problems of the centralized web. However, it is still in its infancy and faces many challenges.
As the metaverse grows and matures, we must consider the problems that have arisen in virtual worlds. We must learn from our mistakes and build an inclusive, safe and secure metavers for all. This means designing comprehensive security features in virtual worlds, regulating grief and intimidation, and establishing user rules and guidelines.
Without these safeguards, the metaverse risks becoming an echo chamber for the worst aspects of the web. But with them, the metaverse has the potential to become a safe space for everyone. Implementing these steps in practice involves discussions between metaverse developers, platform holders and civil society organizations to create a more inclusive and diverse digital future for all.
While these conversations are ongoing, we can all help create a better metaverse by using security features on existing platforms, reporting harassment and abuse, and respecting other users.
Valerias Bangert is a strategy and innovation consultant, founder of three media outlets and published author.
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