In October 2020, a Sub Inspector associated with the traffic unit in New Delhi was arrested for allegedly molesting multiple women and a child at various public places in the city's suburb, Dwarka, and at a few places elsewhere in the Capital. He was booked under IPC, and POCSO Act, following which he was dismissed from the police force and spent some time in jail, only to be out on bail later on.
What if the same happens to a female character or avatar as they are called in the metaverse? Imagine the crime scene to be the online world where the female avatar is surrounded by a group of men who use the choicest profanities to abuse, intimidate, and scare her, threatening her with rape while refusing to let her scoot away. It, too, amounts to sexual assault, albeit in the virtual world, and the experience can be equally nightmarish.
Recounting the horror in a Medium.com post on December 21, 2021, London-based Nina Jane Patel wrote how a gang of three-four avatars sexually harassed her within 60 seconds of joining Meta's (formerly Facebook) metaverse platform, Horizon Venues. “I was verbally and sexually harassed — three-four 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'. A horrible experience that happened so fast and before I could even think about putting the safety barrier in place. I froze. It was surreal. It was a nightmare,” wrote Patel, co-founder and vice-president of metaverse research Kabuni Ventures, in a post on Medium.com.
For the unversed, the metaverse is a network of 3D virtual worlds focused on social connection. It is a hypothetical iteration of the internet as a single, universal virtual world facilitated by virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets. The users in this parallel universe can socialise by creating computer-generated virtual avatars. The immersive virtual world allows users to change apparel, gender, hairstyle, facial and bodily features, shop by using cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and participate in virtual events such as music concerts and games.
Science-fiction writer Neal Stephenson had first coined the term metaverse in his novel, Snow Crash (1992). The author had described a world in which people connect through virtual reality, which according to him is a multi-sensory technological environment in which light photons simulate sight, acoustic inputs simulate sound, and tactile or haptic simulators make people feel like they are “seeing, hearing and touching” other avatars in the metaverse. In other words, every interaction feels virtually real.
The term metaverse became popular after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg changed the company's name to Meta in October 2021. Zuckerberg had then said that privacy and safety need to be built into the metaverse from day one. Horizon Venues, launched by Facebook in 2020, is accessible for Oculus Quest 2 users. Oculus’ website says, “Your Facebook login is an all-access pass to concerts, sports, comedy, and more.”
Virtual reality bites
In her post, Patel had written, “Virtual reality has essentially been designed so the mind and body can’t differentiate virtual/digital experiences from real. In some capacity, my physiological and psychological response was as though it happened in reality.”
Surely what she went through counts as sexual assault, right? Now isn’t that a crime?
The company responded to Patel’s post on February 4, 2021, announcing personal protection measures. “Today, we’re announcing Personal Boundary for Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues. Personal Boundary prevents avatars from coming within a set distance of each other, creating more personal space for people and making it easier to avoid unwanted interactions. Personal Boundary will begin rolling out today everywhere inside of Horizon Worlds and Horizon Venues, and will by default make it feel like there is an almost 4-foot distance between your avatar and others. Over time, we’ll continue to make improvements as we learn how this affects people’s experiences,” a blog post by Vivek Sharma, vice-president, Horizon, announced.
Is the Metaverse, or are the Metaverse(s) in current development, intended to be real or not? questioned Patel. “If the purpose of Virtual Reality (the current mode of human-computer interaction for immersive experiences) is to simulate real life — and it has essentially been designed viscerally, with all five senses (yes, the smell can be included), as real as technology permits — then we are designing non-fiction,” noted Patel in her post.
Her experience of sexual harassment was shocking. “Shocking because I am not accustomed to being spoken to in such derogatory ways, maybe back in 1996, but certainly not in 2021,” she wrote in her post, expressing sadness at how the current state of VR has been predominantly driven by proponents of VR is fiction — violence, sexual fantasies, and to be quite frank — hate.
Speaking on the legal aspect of this incident, Advocate Yashaswi SK Chocksey who practises in the Supreme Court of India raises some pertinent issues about cyber identity. The first aspect while dealing with this incident is the concept of identity as defined in terms of the law that is being violated. According to him, the definition of person as provided in Section 11 with reference to Section 10 of IPC states that a person includes both man and women, though the same obviously being of 1860 doesn’t discuss whether the same includes a virtual version of such person. “Whereas, if seen from a larger point of view, the identity of a person is revealed (as per the choice of the person) and the same would amount to a breach of said identity. The same would include violating the said identity if and when any act is committed in breach of the applicable laws,” says Chocksey.
Sexual assault, rape and stalking under IPC are defined under Section 354 which covers assault or criminal force on a woman with intent to outrage her modesty and Section 354 D which covers stalking. “As per Section 354 D, any man who follows a woman and contacts, or attempts to contact such woman to foster personal interaction repeatedly despite a clear indication of disinterest by such woman; or monitors the use by a woman of the internet, email or any other form of electronic communication, commits the offence of stalking,” adds Chocksey.
A bare perusal of these sections indicates that the same includes violations as per the said sections in terms of electronic form as well. However, he emphasises that legal action when there is an allegation of sexual assault and gang rape on the metaverse shall be governed by this particular section with a caveat that the identity of the person allegedly committing the said act and the victim should be genuine and known.
“One important aspect which needs to be considered is that these sections do include involvement of a human body per se as the title under, which these offences fall under IPC is “Of offences affecting the human body”. The question around which the legal jurisprudence is yet to be evolved is whether a person shall be considered equivalent to the human body in its metaverse form to meet the requisites of these sections?” he asks.
However, in comparison, the Chapter XI of the IT Act deals with offences under the said act. “Section 66C and 66E are of special focus here as the same deal with identity theft and violation of the privacy of a person. From a perusal of the said sections, the most important aspect which culls out is the “identity” of the person. If the identity of the person is known, there can be successful prosecution in these sections and also in the above-said sections of sexual assault and rape,” he states.
Patel, a strong, determined woman (with a strong community around her), who remains undeterred by three-four avatars, wrote, “VR, Metaverse, and other technologies are designed for human interfacing. By design, to offer us ways to engage with the world, supported, integrated and symbiotically with technology — and no matter how we progress we will always be human and humans are real.” With that concluding note in her post, she perfectly summed up the matter.