Explore the pressing challenges the metaverse poses to academic freedom and privacy, in the form of surveillance, censorship and the ‘splinternet’ phenomenon, and discover the importance of adopting a multisectoral and multilateral governance model to safeguard fundamental rights and foster a thriving academic community in the virtual world.

The term ‘metaverse’ is used to describe a shared, immersive virtual universe in which users can interact with each other and virtual objects similarly to real-life interactions. The metaverse is seen as an evolution of the virtual world as it is currently known and is expected to become an increasingly important platform for communication, cooperation, entertainment, and business. It is a space where individuals and organisations can create and participate in various digital experiences, ranging from virtual worlds and social networks to video games, e-commerce, and university classes, to name a few.

Metaverse and cyberspace are two closely linked concepts referring to the digital realm and the potential for new forms of human interaction and experience within it. More specifically, the metaverse is a type of cyberspace (a term describing diverse experiences of space associated with the use of computing and related technologies) where the potential for human interaction and experience is expanded beyond what is currently possible in the physical world (e.g., virtual conferences, educational seminars, and art exhibitions). In that sense, it should not be viewed as an independent technological domain, but rather as an application within cyberspace. Therefore, it presents similar problems that, as explained below, can be addressed with the help of solutions already in place, such as the multisectoral governance model. This approach, namely understanding the metaverse as an application within cyberspace, also suggests that the norms currently governing cyberspace will also shape the governance of the metaverse.

Notwithstanding, the emergence of the metaverse presents new challenges for the protection of various fundamental rights, ranging from privacy and data protection to freedom of expression and academic freedom. Freedom of expression and academic freedom are closely linked concepts encompassing the right to publicly express opinions and share information, as well as the public’s right to access this information. Academic freedom is enshrined in a multitude of international, regional, and national laws, including national constitutions. For instance, at the level of the European Union (EU), academic freedom is enshrined in Article 13 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (CFR). Additionally, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) protects against arbitrary or unlawful interference with freedom of expression and can be applied to academic freedom. Academic freedom is a core principle governing the functioning of universities and other scientific institutions and ensuring, inter alia, that researchers are free to pursue their work without fear of persecution.

In a world shaped by the rise of digital technologies, scholars and students rely heavily on the ability to collect, store and distribute data, as well as to disseminate their work online. However, this reality presents significant challenges to the academic profession, particularly to the extent that State surveillance policies can be employed to suppress and censor dissenting ideas. According to Freedom House’s report entitled “Freedom on the Net”, censorship of social media platforms and communication apps reached an all-time high across the globe in 2022, with more governments than ever before targeting social media platforms and messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram to control the digital flow of information. Surveillance in the metaverse may allow for the collection of a much broader range of data, including data related to users’ virtual movements, interactions and activities, as well as biometric data such as facial expressions, vocal patterns, and even brainwaves.

This data can be employed to create a detailed profile of personal behaviour, preferences, and interests that can be further used for targeted advertising, manipulation or even oppression. This may also include the tracking of movements or even of emotional states. Surveillance of this kind is particularly concerning in countries where freedom of expression has already suffered significant limitations and citizens may thus already abstain from expressing their real opinions out of fear of monitoring. This danger calls for robust protection measures to ensure that the metaverse remains a place of freedom and creativity rather than a tool of oppression, both generally and more specifically in academic settings. Growing managerial oversight and interferences with freedom of speech in universities, along with the drive for “smart” campuses, which permit the monitoring of both students and staff, are promoted on the premise of “student protection” or “personalisation” of learning experiences but can have significant , as follows:

1. Recording and editing virtual classes: Digital education platforms allow recording and editing of virtual lessons. This could lead to manipulation of opinions and intimidation of teachers and students with different views. As a result, academic freedom may suffer, with people hesitating to express controversial ideas in the classroom. 2. Surveillance: Both private and public actors in the metaverse can collect vast user data. This can negatively impact academic freedom, as users might avoid discussing sensitive topics or sharing dissenting opinions due to fear of surveillance or profiling-based discrimination. 3. Censorship and repression: The State may remove content deemed inappropriate or offensive or prohibit specific discussion topics, limiting the diversity of ideas and stifling intellectual debate. To do so, the State needs to exercise control over the metaverse.

State sovereignty may be used to assert control over the metaverse, often resulting in the fragmentation of the internet and the creation of alternative networks that are regulated differently, a phenomenon described by the term “splinternet”. This may cause interoperability problems and make it difficult for users from different networks to interact with each other, while also limiting the circulation of content and ideas. Furthermore, users may face privacy and security issues arising from incompatible or inconsistent regulations across the different networks the metaverse will be comprised of. This may also impact adversely on academic freedom since fragmentation can make it difficult for university professors and students from different countries and networks to communicate and collaborate with each other, thus limiting the spread of knowledge. This can lead to a less diverse and debate-prone academic environment, posing obstacles to interdisciplinary research and thus hindering the advancement of knowledge. Additionally, fragmentation can exacerbate censorship and the suppression of ideas and opinions considered subversive or threatening to national security. The more limited the communication between different networks, the easier it is for governments to pursue censorship agendas within the sphere of their influence by, for instance, blocking access to specific websites or social media platforms. They can also monitor and control information flows within their network, allowing them to suppress or remove any content deemed unacceptable.  

Against this background, it becomes vital that measures be implemented to protect freedom of expression in both the physical world and the metaverse, and to ensure that citizens have access to an education system free from governmental interference. The problems outlined above are not new when compared to those posed into the cyberspace (disinformation, algorithmic bias, extremism, surveillance) and, in that sense, they are common to all countries and jurisdictions around the globe. The metaverse is (or at least should be conceived as) a global public good and its proper governance is only possible through multisectoral and multilateral responses.

A common goods-based approach would be beneficial as it provides a comprehensive understanding of the need for collective governance of digital resources that are susceptible to exploitation. The virtual world is intertwined with social and political structures and, as such, solutions to problems faced in the virtual world can only be found through a holistic socio-political approach. This means that digital resources should be governed collectively for the benefit of all, rather than being exploited for individual benefit – an approach that takes into consideration the impact of individual actions on the wider community and ensures that digital resources are used in a way that benefits the latter.

Similarly, the protection of freedom of expression and academic freedom in the metaverse presupposes a socio-political approach to the challenges presented above, which are linked to the social and political structures surrounding them.

Next, a multi-stakeholder governance model should also be employed to address the challenges posed by State mass surveillance in the metaverse and to ensure the participation of a wide range of stakeholders, including – besides public authorities and private actors involved in the development of the metaverse – members of the academic community and civil society. This global multi-stakeholder governance model implies a departure from the traditional model of State-centred regulation. Moreover, the idea behind multi-stakeholder governance is that no single group or entity can address complex global problems independently. Instead, it is crucial to involve a diverse range of stakeholders in the decision-making process to ensure that solutions consider a variety of perspectives and are therefore more likely to be effective and sustainable.

An approach that integrates a collective and multisectoral decision-making process benefits the entire community in terms of facilitating the expansion and diffusion of connections, knowledge, services, and new forms of communication. Multisectoral governance, when implemented globally, regionally and locally, can lead to significant progress in terms of securing the rights of users and citizens because it acknowledges the existence of a community made up of common social practices, cultural traditions, and shared values. The governance model suggested above should also include a mechanism for public participation and engagement, which can be achieved through public consultations and online platforms that allow citizens to provide feedback on the policies and regulations under negotiation. This should also help ensure that the governance of the metaverse is inclusive and reflects the needs and concerns of all relevant stakeholders. As part of such a governance model, civil society organisations can monitor government and private industry actors, ensuring that they follow the policies and regulations put in place to protect fundamental rights, including but not limited to academic freedom. The ultimate goal of this multistakeholder governance model being to increase the accountability of both State actors and private companies involved in the design and use of the metaverse.

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