Policing the metaverse

Sexual attacks are on the rise in the virtual world throwing up uncomfortable questions about online safety

Policing the metaverse

My first introduction to the virtual world of alternate realities was through ‘Second Life’. First introduced in 2003, the online multimedia platform (earlier looked upon as a game) quickly gained prominence and notoriety. Imagine living a virtual life completely different from the real one. Avatars of choice, ability to do all the things one craved but couldn’t, live out fantasies — the list was endless; a double life so to speak. You could chat with other players, look the way you wanted sans surgeries, dress as you wish, travel between places, and even use its own currency. The freedom of identity, anonymity, and action are heady mixes, and though years later I tried the platform, my flirtation with it lasted but a few days. Perhaps it was the unbridled possibilities or just the fear of temptation, I decided to do what I do best — avoid uncomfortable choices — and I beat a hasty retreat.

For many though, the virtual world is where everything goes. In a world where financial inequities and traditional sexual preferences may often stymie desire, the virtual world is open ground. With Facebook declaring its commitment to the metaverse through a change in its nomenclature in 2021 to Meta, metaverse became the hottest trending topic. We increasingly find governments, corporates, and individuals moving deeper into the virtual world using the proffered tech tools to their advantage. Virtual presence is fast catching pace — even the Maharashtra government has launched the ‘Mumbai Megapolis Metaverse’ enabling citizens to track the progress of the various infrastructure development projects currently underway in and around maximum city. Various tech companies such as are scrambling to put India on the metaverse map with BharatMeta.

As acceptance and development of virtual worlds carries on, it also brings with it fresh challenges. A recent case of virtual gangrape of a minor girl in the UK has raised several red flags. As we imbibe virtual reality into many aspects of work and life, it exposes, especially our vulnerable sections — children and women — to a new set of sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation within the metaverse. How do you even police the virtual world? Is it even possible? Who sets the jurisdiction? Legal definitions and cybercrime laws are fuzzy in this arena. The UK police, however, has initiated a probe into the gangrape, stating that though there was no physical contact, the minor had experienced emotional and psychological trauma. The approach and ultimate result of this investigation could set the path in defining and prosecuting virtual crimes.

The instances of sexual abuse and harassment in the metaverse dates back to 1993. As per news reports, the first allegations of virtual rape were levelled on text-based platform online community called LambdaMOO, wherein an online character forced sex acts on others using a virtual voodoo doll. Bizarre, yes, but the virtual world can become the playing field of criminals and perverts, if left unmonitored. The term ‘virtual rape’ also came into being due to the paper written by freelance journalist Julian Dibbell titled ‘A Rape in Cyberspace’ based on the LambdaMOO incident.

Experts say that globally, incidents of sexual harassment and assault are on the rise. India along with the world is willingly embracing AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality). Along with immersive technology and breakneck speed of the growing gaming industry, much of our population would be running untethered in the virtual world. Miscreants too won’t be absent for long from the virtual world. The opportunity of getting away with crimes, even virtual, would be addictive for deviant personalities and financial scamsters. As the virtual world brings borderless opportunities, it will become more important than ever to set boundaries. The metaverse has a safety feature option to set a ‘personal boundary’ that creates a four-foot distance between avatars to prevent unwarranted physical overtures. Parents and elders would need to closely supervise the interactions between children and unknown strangers. Eventually, online harassment laws would have to be amended to protect users in the metaverse. The virtual world, with its fantasies and magical ability to make us forget real-life challenges and troubles, can be a great escape. But remember, that as in a fantasy, there will be monsters that lurk in the shadows and those that walk among us, even in the metaverse.

The writer is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are personal

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