Metaverse Menace: The Alarming Surge in Virtual World Harassment
Interpol and U.S. Police Begin Recognizing Risks
“Should be Classified as Crime” vs. “Need More Research and Caution”
Reports of attacks, harassment, and sexual assault in the metaverse are on the rise. Some argue that these incidents should be considered serious crimes. Authorities have begun to take notice.
According to The Washington Post (WP), on February 4 (local time), the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) urged police around the world to develop protocols to address sexual violence crimes in virtual reality (VR) last month.
The Zero Abuse Project, supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, plans to hold a workshop this spring to explain the dangers of the metaverse to federal and local law enforcement. In its report, Interpol pointed out, “As the use of the metaverse and the number of participants increase, there is a need to define crimes and victimization in the metaverse.”
With recent virtual and augmented reality services and devices launched by tech companies like Meta and Apple, related victim cases are increasing. It has been reported that a significant number of early adopters of virtual reality come from the video game industry, which is notorious for rampant sexual assault. In 2014, the Gamergate incident occurred, where male game fans targeted and harassed female developers.
Experts point out that the problems of the video game era have moved to virtual reality. According to a study released in 2018, 49% of women who regularly use virtual reality reported experiencing sexual harassment at least once.
Recent studies have shown that harassment in the digital world can have a severe psychological impact similar to real-world attacks. Professor Guo Freeman of Clemson University in the U.S., who will soon publish a study on harassment in the metaverse, said, “Harassment is becoming a growing concern for people using virtual reality services. Some people have stopped using it due to abuse.”
She further analyzed, “Because virtual reality is highly immersive, it feels like another person is touching you, and it even feels like your offline body is being attacked.”
However, legal precedents must be significantly revised to prosecute virtual reality actions as crimes. Current laws regarding rape and sexual assault require evidence of physical action. Even if technically applicable, there are usually multiple violations, and proof is often difficult to establish.
Calls for immediate protocols are emerging. Dan Barry, an Investigative Specialist at The Zero Abuse Project, said, “Having set my profile as a 13-year-old girl in a virtual reality program, I was almost immediately greeted by male avatars, followed by sexual remarks and requests for private chats. Because there is little control in this space, children can be sexually assaulted by adults.”
On the other hand, there is a significant view that caution is needed in defining this as a crime. Aya Gruber, a law professor at the University of Southern California who has studied rape law, said, “People always kill each other in video games, but we don’t call them murderers.” Mary Anne Franks, a professor at George Washington Law School, explained, “There is a long-standing view that abuse such as assault in virtual reality is not realistic or serious.”
There is also a perspective that more research is needed to understand the impact of crimes or unethical behavior in virtual reality before classifying actions in virtual reality as crimes.