As a small but growing number of Indian users of the Metaverse– a virtual three-dimensional world that is termed as the next frontier of the internet–report cases of assault and sexual violation of their digital avatars
, it is stoking consternation amongst legal experts confronted by new-age crimes that are not covered under existing laws.
Earlier this year, a young woman based in one of the country’s top metros sought legal recourse for what she termed as “violation” of her avatar on the virtual reality platform. But criminal and judicial systems in India, and even world over, are still not ready to handle the challenges thrown up by the Metaverse, according to lawyers being approached to handle such issues.
Avatars represent the virtual identity of individuals while on the Metaverse with all actions conducted through these digital representations.
“There is a need for a new legal framework,” said cyberlaw expert Pavan Duggal, who is a part of the Metaverse Law , a global body working towards bringing in common guidelines on how to manage such virtual conflicts.
Pointing out that “the current law doesn’t recognise (digital) avatars,” Duggal said the problem is exacerbated by the Metaverse being a “global ecosystem, which makes it hard to litigate.”
“Attribution of identity and jurisdiction are some of the challenges at present,” he added.
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While still at a nascent stage, there is rising interest in the virtual 3D platform that combines social interaction with virtual and augmented reality, allowing users to live different experiences virtually.
Gartner reports that 25% of people will spend an hour per day in the Metaverse by 2026 for work, shopping, education, and entertainment, while 30% of organisations will have products and services ready for metaverse. Late last year, Facebook renamed itself Meta Platforms and said that it would invest $10 billion in the business, given the huge potential it sees in the space. Several brands and individuals have started investing in buying land virtually and building their virtual worlds.
Goldman Sachs predicts the Metaverse market size will be worth $1-12 trillion, while not specifying a time period for the same.
This influx of activity is drawing brands and consumers to the virtual world and is also leading to instances of cyber bullying and harassment, as well as financial crime, point out industry experts.
Mukul Shrivastava, Partner, Forensics and Integrity Services, EY said “this is a very fragmented space with no centralised set up. Several of the platforms are not based in India so that makes it harder when trying to litigate.” he said.
The inability to apply the same regulations applicable to such crimes in the real world is a major challenge, as well. “In the case of non-economic crimes, you have to prove that you are connected to the avatar that was harmed in the virtual world,” said Abhishek Malhotra, founding partner of TMT Law Practice. And when it comes to financial or economic crimes, it is still a grey area since the foundation is cryptocurrency, which is still not legal in India.
Noting that prevailing laws cannot be invoked to deal with virtual crimes of assault and molestation, Supreme Court advocate NS Nappinai said one must “look for remedies based on the mode and manner of commission of crimes.”
“ For instance, in a case of rape of an avatar on Metaverse, or even in an online game, whilst Section 376 IPC will not be applicable, other offences such as hacking and tampering with source codes and even publishing and transmission of obscene or sexually explicit content punishable under IT Act can be invoked,” she said.
However, the first step, is to take it up with the platform itself according to Nappinai who also runs the CyberSaathi Foundation,
Platforms strengthen screening
Rajat Ojha, Founder & CEO, Gamitronics, which runs the PartyNite metaverse platform said that they have set up predefined emotes and movements to ensure that the system is protected for any ‘physical or sexual’ gestures.
At a recent public event, PartyNite mandated users to undergo a KYC to go to a bar area, as it helps to associate digital identities with real world identities. “That gave us enough insights and adoption metrics and we are currently working on our learnings from that,” said Ojha.
Some Metaverse platforms offer built-in safety features like safe zones, or methods to not allow strangers within a certain radius of your avatar.
“At this moment, every public event has our policing, and we warn the person if an issue is raised. We have features to kick the offender out, but we know it’s not sufficient, so we focus a lot on letting our attendees know how to reach out to us and we then go case by case basis,” Gamitronic’s Ojha said.