Last December, Metaverse grabbed headlines across the world for unfortunate reasons. In the metaverse VR platform Horizon Worlds from Meta, a beta tester reported she was virtually “groped.” The incident which took place on November 26, was officially reported by Meta on Dec 1. The incident sparked debate on the definition and jurisdiction of ‘crimes’ that could possibly take place in the metaverse. Most recently, the UAE’s artificial intelligence minister, Omar Sultan Al Olama, told the gathering at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday that he believes persons who commit “serious crimes” in the metaverse should face real-world criminal consequences.
From a technical perspective, the metaverse is just the internet’s successor. The metaverse is commonly thought of as an embodied internet. This means you may engage and have tactile sensations in a setting that is almost genuine but not quite. Everything is a virtual replica!
Although it does not yet exist, tech behemoths are already pouring billions of dollars into its development. However, there are a number of safety issues surrounding its development.
Omar Sultan Al Olama stated that the realistic nature of any metaverse that emerges might allow individuals to be terrified in ways that aren’t now feasible. He explained that if he sends you a text on WhatsApp, it may terrify you, but it will not trigger the memories that will cause you to develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). However, in the metaverse, if he murders someone, it will be an aggressive and undesirable act that qualifies as a crime, he continued.
It is crucial to note that PTSD is not necessarily trigged in the manner Omar explained. Because PTSD can be triggered by a variety of circumstances, there is no physiological benchmark by which it appears. Clinical diagnosis is accomplished via observation and conversations with medical professionals.
Al Olama encouraged the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations’ specialized organization for information and communication technologies, to hold a discussion about establishing international metaverse safety rules that individuals must follow regardless of where they reside. On the internet, for example, there are agreed rules to prohibit drug trafficking and child pornography.
Furthermore, Al Olama noted that migration from one metaverse platform to another must be feasible, implying the development of interoperability across different metaverse platforms created by different firms. Chris Cox, the chief product officer at Meta agreed with the minister and remarked that the world should be led by international rules when it comes to the metaverse.
However, developing laws and regulations around crimes in the metaverse won’t be easy. For instance, will these laws be written to protect people or protect virtual avatars and people who write codes that populate the metaverse? What about ‘violence’ that already happens in the virtual worlds of gaming including gaming in the metaverse?
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As the metaverse promises to merge both the real and virtual world, there are key ethical questions that arise. What should users do? What exactly is the distinction between right and wrong? Is it possible to commit homicide in the metaverse? What does justice entail?
While it may seem reasonable to prohibit exceptionally unpleasant content, like images of child sexual assault, things become murkier in the virtual world while understanding what constitutes to be labeled as virtual “murder.” This is an argument that surely exceeds the definition of the term in the real world, as metaverse exists ‘virtually’; thus wrestling the minds of lawmakers.
Not only murder, anything that is considered illegal in the real world, will require a new definition in the metaverse. Let us say, someone, shoplifts or steals some inventory (no we are not trying to make a Les Miserable version in metaverse), the first concern is what’s the worth of the item that was stolen? Is the worth something that can be measured in virtual currency or does it have any real-world value? Or is it an NFT? If it is an NFT, the avatar who stole it is a hacker who has now transferred to it an untraceable wallet address?
This emphasizes how difficult it is to describe even virtual stealing when virtual objects are fictitious. You can’t “steal” something that doesn’t exist. This is also one of the reasons why there have not been any convictions regarding the theft of virtual assets. To make things worse, metaverse users may also have a hard time clarifying the difference between virtual and digital objects to law enforcers, due to a lack of guidelines.
In addition, there’s the conundrum of who gets to decide what should be considered illegal in the metaverse. Furthermore, legislators will need to be proactive in ensuring that Metaverse technology is compliant with data protection standards.
At the same time, while user-on-user crimes such as cyber trespassing, deceit, assault, obscenity, and harassment already occur on the internet, there’s no reason they won’t exist in the metaverse as well. So, if things go unchecked owing to law loopholes on the metaverse, expect to be targeted and harassed for your race, gender, political inclination, and just about any opinion or belief you express in the metaverse.
There is, however, a silver lining: earlier this year, the South Korean Communications Commission convened a meeting to examine user protection on the metaverse, particularly the issue of sexual harassment targeting children. The council, which is part of the Korea Communications Commission, is made up of 30 media, legal, technology, and industrial management specialists who will debate metaverse concerns including violence, sexual crime, and inclusion. The measure requires the platforms to disclose any sexual offenses to law enforcement officials immediately.
There have been several instances in the metaverse when youngsters have been harassed or have been sexually exploited. A 14-year-old girl was forced into taking off her avatar’s clothes in a metaverse and then told to make her avatar engage in sexual activities, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family in September 2021.
South Korea has been strongly open to the notion of metaverse for months now. Earlier this year, the Korean government made news when it revealed intentions to invest 224 billion Korean won (almost $200 million) in its local “metaverse ecosystem.”
Even UAE is not lagging behind to ensure its stance in the metaverse industry. In order to capitalize on prospects in the metaverse, the Dubai government has announced the formation of a dedicated task force to follow the latest advancements in the digital economy.
Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai and Chairman of The Executive Council of Dubai, and Sheikh Maktoum bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai, Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister of Finance, issued the directives to establish the task force at a meeting of the Dubai Council on May 19. The strategy intends to boost the metaverse sector’s contribution to Dubai’s economy to $4 billion by 2030 and to enhance its GDP contribution to 1%.