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The voices defining Web3: Is there a First Amendment right to assemble in the metaverse?

'The general stance on this surveillance is that it will ultimately kill free speech.'

 

Louise Macaraniag

Tech

Posted on May 4, 2022   Updated on May 4, 2022, 11:23 am CDT

The first-ever metaverse protest 

In front of Samsung’s headquarters this February, dozens of protesters marched in red shirts with “MoneyFestation” written on the front, holding signs that say, “I Have A Scream.” 

The shirt was designed by Azerbaijani poet and artist Babi Badalov. Combining the words money, infestation, and manifestation, Badalov and supporters were rallying to criticize rampant capitalism and consumerism. 

But the protest didn’t take place in the Samsung headquarters in South Korea; instead, it was at their digital headquarters in the virtual town of Decentraland within the depths of the metaverse.3D, digital world that can be interacted with using virtual or augmented reality-supported tech  

The protesters were digital avatars, and their shirts were minted non-fungible tokens (NFTs)blockchain-backed assets that Web3 users can purchase with cryptocurrency. Many users describe NFT trading as “virtual art collecting” and can use these digital assets to interact in the metaverse using virtual or augmented reality technology. that were distributed among the protesters for free as a commentary on the commodification of art. 

In collaboration with a nonprofit foundation based in the Netherlands, Superflus, the virtual demonstration was meant to resist the commercialization of the metaverse. 

“What we want to do with all the projects is critically explore the possibilities of the metaverse … as sort of an institutional critique,” art historian and co-founder of Superflus Robbie Schweiger said. “[We are] approaching this technology, not as a selling mechanism, but more as a medium to really look into technological possibilities.”

Schweiger said the group was protesting big tech companies that are encroaching on what is supposed to be decentralized, digital land. 

Corporations such as Samsung act in contradiction to the decentralization of the internet, which Superflus sees as a major actor in “colonizing [the metaverse], bringing along consumerism, (digital) inequality, exclusion, and extraction.” 

Schweiger explained in an interview with Galerie Poggi that Samsung is “the very current embodiment of the hyper-commercialization of the metaverse as a whole.” 

This was the first-ever known protest in the metaverse and has not been the last. Within the last few months, there have been several held in the emerging digital space. 

As the world continues to move further online, every facet of human life has managed to find its way into the digital sphere. This includes our ability to express ourselves and offer new perspectives without the fear of censorship and surveillance. The metaverse and its promise of a new decentralized world may offer just that. 

But it’s not without concerns.

The new frontier of digital activism 

One of the metaverse protests that followed Superflus’ virtual rally includes a digital demonstration organized by the metaverse-entertainment platform, MultiNFT, to resist the Russian invasion of Ukraine and escape Russian censorship and free speech violations. 

This virtual protest was held on the central island of Cryptovoxels called Original City. During the protest, digital avatars held up signs that said “Stop The War.” 

MulitNFT’s demonstration was not the only protest against Russia. Gamers also held virtual protests in the fictional cities of Limsa Lominsa and Ul’dah in the video game Final Fantasy XIV

“There’s a lot of possibilities in terms of protests in the metaverse, especially when there are also societies [like] Russia and Belarus at the moment where you cannot protest, and going out in the street with a sign gets you arrested,” Schweiger said. 

The landscape of digital activism has drastically transformed in the last few years with ever-developing technologies that have offered a new way to protest by developing access to the metaverse. Extended reality (XR) has paved new and creative ways to express dissent and practice your civil liberties. 

The metaverse is an interoperable virtual world that can be accessed using a variety of technologies, whether through your computer or through virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) goggles. The metaverse is becoming more commonplace as we enter the new age of the internet: Web3. This new, decentralized platform runs on blockchain technology, a service owned and operated by its users rather than large corporations. 

Web2 gave online activists a platform to express their beliefs through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and other online forums. But with Web3’s pivot to the decentralization of the internet, people have more control over the rules and regulations of online activism. 

Virtual spaces have always acted as a platform for political action and discourse, but now it is increasingly becoming more immersive than ever before. Questions linger about what rights people will maintain as their lives become increasingly digital. 

“[XR is] promoting a future that is more interoperable, meaning that people can host their own servers and interact with other people in other servers,” said Rory Mir, grassroots organizer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “[This] allows folks to have more direct control over these platforms, rather than having to let Facebook control everything.”

Not only has virtual reality created a new platform for protests; it also presents an accessible alternative to physical protests. 

“I see a lot of potential in VR letting people engage in political action that they might not otherwise be able to, particularly folks that are disabled,” Mir said. 

Superflus and Badalov chose to hold a demonstration through the metaverse not only to explore new technological possibilities but to also ensure that this technology is accessible to everyone, especially those who are new to the metaverse. 

“[Our] goals revolve around accessibility, digital inequality, and of course, artistic value,” Schweiger said. 

During an online gathering after the protest, one of the participants, Inez Piso said, “This metaverse is supposed to be accessible for everybody in the world, but on the other hand, it is not for people that don’t know how to use this technology; people like me. That’s why I really like this format, a kind of workshop in the beginning, where you take us by the hand very slowly and patiently, step by step, and I think that is very much part of the work—crossing boundaries and making things accessible.”

Human rights in the metaverse 

The new and exciting ways to protest in the metaverse also bring a new set of challenges and concerns. As extended reality technology continues to develop and become more ubiquitous, there are questions about human rights within virtual reality.

“We got a message from [Decentraland’s] legal department if we were in contact with the artist before uploading this [NFT],” Schweiger said. “So, there is actually people gatekeeping and monitoring.” 

The legal department of Decetranland specifically asked Superflus to provide a letter from the artist, Babi Badalov, that he was aware they were using his art during the protest. 

This raises privacy and surveillance concerns for many who choose to participate in virtual protests, whether through metaverse servers or through using AR glasses. 

In an IRL protest, you can remove identifying marks by covering your face. But logging on to the metaverse carries a different set of risks as your digital identity is more likely to be tracked and surveilled, especially if you are using VR or AR technology. 

“The general stance on this surveillance is that it will ultimately kill free speech,” Mir explained. “[If you are] going to a protest and you’ll have your face put into a database that may be used against you, you’re probably not going to go to protests.”

VR headsets and AR glasses can collect personal data in a much deeper way than our regular devices. Not only can it track your location, but it can also monitor your mind and behavior by collecting what is known as “egocentric” data.  

“When you bring up XR, you will have an immediate response of like, oh, that’s just some rich person’s toy,” Mir added. “But, augmented reality tech is going to have a direct impact on even people that don’t own these devices directly because these devices collect a lot of environmental information, so you may, as a bystander, have your information be collected.” 

AR glasses are also entering into other facets of society, including police departments. 

“There’s different programs of law enforcement also considering using these augmented reality glasses,” Mir said. “As those become more prevalent, the community groups are going to be a lot more invested in making sure it’s handled correctly.” 

Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and AccessNow are working toward a safer space within virtual reality to ensure that human rights are protected even beyond the physical realm.

These two organizations have worked together on a list of demands addressed to lawmakers and tech developers that outline the measures that need to be taken in order to protect human rights in the metaverse.

As a new and evidently viable platform for protests, it’s important that people’s First Amendment rights are protected within the metaverse. As we enter this new frontier of digital resistance, the same societal issues we face in the real world of inequality, exploitation, and censorship still remain. It’s essential that people are able to maintain their ability to speak out on such injustices. 

“The problems of the physical world are also very much the problems of the digital world,” Schweiger said.

As more virtual protests begin to surface on the frontlines of Web3, the long-term effectiveness and results of these actions remain to be seen. 


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*First Published: May 4, 2022, 6:00 am CDT