We are starting to see cases of what could be classed as ‘criminal activity’ in the metaverse. In December last year, Nina Jane Patel, 43, in a Medium post recounted the virtual rape that she experienced as a beta tester on the VR platform Horizon Worlds, created by Meta. “Within 60 seconds of joining — I was verbally and sexually harassed — 3-4 male avatars, with male voices, essentially, but virtually gang raped my avatar and took photos — as I tried to get away they yelled — ‘don’t pretend you didn’t love it’ and ‘go rub yourself off to the photo,” said Patel. A Russian teenager was recently sentenced to five years in prison by a Siberian military court for allegedly “training for terrorist activities” by planning to blow up a fake government building they’d built in Minecraft. The metaverse appears to be shaping up to be a space that condones hate speech and harassment. Although platforms have ways to report users who violate their rules, people who’ve experienced or witnessed harassment and offensive behaviour in virtual environments find the process for filing a report to be cumbersome and a deterrent.
This raises the question of whether virtual ‘crimes’ can be prosecuted in the real world and how laws should be redefined to encompass these ‘crimes’. Some users see the metaverse as a ‘safe’ space to engage in behaviour that would be frowned upon or deemed criminal in reality. There doesn’t appear to be any serious repercussions for their actions. Thus far ‘criminal activity’ within games, such as those that contain killing and stealing, fall safely within the realm of harmless play, albeit critics may argue that these incite real world violence. But the cases of avatar rape and harrassment mentioned above, appear on the surface to be different. It is unclear what legal recourse the ‘victims’ have. Currently there’s not much legal precedent in this arena but it is heading in that direction, according to trend spotters at Flux Trends.
Critics argue that the metaverse, as in real life, needs to be a safe space. As more and more people begin exploring the metaverse, including children, they say there need to be safety measures and security controls in place to protect against harassment and other ‘crimes’. At the moment, such spaces are new and are largely unregulated but experts predict we should see more safety features being added in the months to come, as Microsoft had just done. The software giant recently added user safety measures to its AltspaceVR platform. Businesses that are set up within the metaverse need to have safety protocols in place to protect their users, in the same way that businesses in the physical realm do. Businesses that use the metaverse as a space for employees to engage with each other need to work out how their existing company policies translate digitally and they need to have this defined in their HR policies.
By Faeeza Khan
Image credit: Bruno Bueno