Does your avatar in the metaverse have the same rights and legal protections as you do?
Virtual worlds are being built to mirror the physical world. You can attend concerts, visit casinos, meet a friend for coffee and even hang out in a lounge sponsored by your bank. When it comes to regulation though, real-world law is not mirrored, instead these digital spaces are governed by code and terms of service agreements, leaving some asking, is this enough?
While regulators struggle to understand what their jurisdiction might be in the metaverse and how existing laws apply to digital assets, land, data and privacy - civil and criminal laws that apply to interpersonal interactions are often left out of the conversation.
Jenn Senasie is a co-host on CoinDesk's "The Hash," a daily news show that unpacks the latest developments in tech, cryptocurrency and finance. This article is part of “Metaverse Week."
This is all the more important considering the metaverse’s promised role to become a large part of how we interact in the future. Regulators will battle with this question as the metaverse gains momentum, and as real people suffer real consequences and injuries in these virtual spaces.
And the harms are real:
“Within 60 seconds of joining – I was verbally and sexually harassed," Nina Jane Patel wrote in a Medium article that chronicled a “virtual gang rape” she experienced in Meta’s Horizon Venues, which is now part of the Horizon Worlds platform.
“As I tried to get away they yelled – ‘don’t pretend you didn’t love it’ and ‘go rub yourself off to the photo,’” the 43-year-old mother wrote as she described the experience as a surreal nightmare.
This was not an isolated incident. In December 2021, a Horizon Worlds beta tester said she was groped. She wrote on the official Horizons Facebook page, “Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behavior which made me feel isolated in the Plaza.”
If human interaction in the real world has taught us anything, it’s that we can expect to hear more stories like this. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center, an American nonprofit, found that 81% of women and 43% of men have reported experiencing some sort of sexual violence or assault in their lives.
So what happens when you’re sexually assaulted in the metaverse?
In the case of Patel and the beta user, Meta launched a solution called Personal Boundary for Horizon Worlds. The feature, which was announced in a blog post, prevents others from entering your avatar’s personal space, “making it easier to avoid unwanted interactions.”
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Fixes like this present their own challenges. The personal boundary feature released by Meta remains turned on by default for “non-friends,” and users can adjust their Personal Boundary settings as they please. But what happens if a user turns off their boundary and is sexually assaulted? Is this the user’s fault? What happens if a person isn’t tech savvy enough to navigate the settings? This feels like the virtual version of telling a woman she was assaulted because her clothes were too revealing.
At what point is the person behind an avatar legally responsible for their own actions?
The U.S. Code’s definition of rape includes committing a sexual act on another person by:
- Using unlawful force against that other person.
- Using force causing or likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm to any person.
- Threatening or placing that other person in fear that any person will be subjected to death, grievous bodily harm, or kidnapping.
While avatars can’t suffer “grievous bodily harm,” people can suffer psychological damage. Although people can be awarded damages for psychological harm – it isn’t yet specifically outlined in the legal definition mentioned above, nor is it clear how the metaverse mediates mental harm.
A new definition?
Patel described her experience as one so horrible she couldn’t think, she couldn’t put the safety barrier in place, she just froze. It was only after this experience that Meta created the safety barrier that is turned on by default.
Those that experience this type of harm in virtual worlds often feel isolated, just like the Horizon Worlds beta user noted in her Facebook post.
The metaverse isn’t the first instance we’ve seen of virtual assault and harassment leading to feelings of isolation and helplessness. Social media created a world where we became comfortable interacting with each other from behind screens, making it easier for harassment to occur.
With the rise of social media came the rise of cyberbullying and cyber assault, but not specific cyber laws for interpersonal harm.
In 2013, 17-year-old Canadian high school student Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide, leaving her community in shock. Parsons struggled with mental health issues after photos of her alleged gang rape surfaced online.
Nova Scotia’s government passed the Intimate Images and Cyber-protection Act to “deter, prevent and respond to the harms of non-consensual sharing of intimate images and cyber-bullying,” and offered a path to receive civil remedies.
In this situation the law was reactive. Could Parsons’ life have been saved if the legal system was able to keep up with technology?
Lawmakers have the opportunity to learn from the past and be proactive when it comes to user interaction in the metaverse. If avatars are representative of real world people, real world protections should be put in place to protect the psychological safety of every person.
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It is naive to think that the darkest parts of the physical world won’t be mirrored in the virtual world. The impacts are bigger than just breaking a company’s terms of service, and it’s not clear that by enabling new types of experiences, the companies or platforms will share the legal burden if things go wrong.
You might find yourself accessing the metaverse from the safety of your own home, but you could be entering one of the most unsafe situations you’ve ever experienced. How’s that for meta?
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