It seems that we are preparing ourselves for a huge takeover of our real life by virtual life, without our legal system being ready for it.
LAST year, the avatar of a female beta tester on Meta’s virtual reality platform, Horizon World, was groped by a stranger, which led Meta to initiate its own investigation into the matter.
Unsurprisingly, that day is not far when we all will be living our virtual lives together in a Metaverse space, and these incidents would be part of our day-to-day life. Technological research and consulting firm Gartner reports that 25 per cent of all people will spend an hour per day in the Metaverse by 2026 for work, shopping, education, and entertainment, while 30 per cent of organizations will have products and services ready for the metaverse.
Certainly, when there will be so much human interaction, disputes are inevitable. However, here, the question arises whether our legal system is in a position to govern and regulate the acts carried out by humans in the Metaverse? It seems that we are preparing ourselves for a huge takeover of our real life by virtual life, without our legal system being ready for it.
How does the Metaverse work?
While defying precise definitions, the metaverse is generally regarded as a network of 3-D virtual worlds where people can interact, do business, and forge social connections through their virtual “avatars.” Imagine a world where you could have a beachside conversation with your colleagues, take meeting notes while floating around a space station, or teleport from your office in Goa to Delhi, all without taking a step outside your front door. Feeling under pressure with too many meetings scheduled today? Then why not send your AI-enabled digital twin instead to take the load off your shoulders?
So, within the metaverse, you can make friends, rear virtual pets, design virtual fashion items, buy virtual real estate, attend events, create and sell digital art — and earn money to boot. For instance, with India’s first Metaverse immersive platform NextMeet, employee digital avatars can pop in and out of virtual offices and meeting rooms in real-time, walk up to a virtual help desk, give a live presentation from the dais, relax with colleagues in a networking lounge, or roam a conference centre or exhibition using a customizable avatar. Participants access the virtual environment via their desktop computer or mobile device, pick or design their avatar, and then use keyboard buttons to navigate the space: arrow keys to move around, double click to sit on a chair, and so forth.
The offence of insulting the modesty of a woman can be committed in the Metaverse if any male avatar commits any act (such as making a gesture) before a female avatar which produces some effects on the senses of the real woman behind the avatar, and which can be said to have insulted the modesty of that woman.
However, be it the virtual world or the real world, where humans interact with each other, disputes do arise and we have to keep our laws ready for it.
What are the offences which don’t require one’s physical existence?
There are some offences which require the physical existence of humans. For instance, the offence of murder cannot be committed until the person is actually killed. Similarly, offences such as assault, acid attack, culpable homicide, and kidnapping, among others, are some of the offences which need the user’s physical existence. In these kinds of offences, it is the human body which is the primary target. Thus, it does not seem that these offences can be committed by a user in the Metaverse as the user does not carry their body into the Metaverse.
However, there are some offences which do not require the physical presence of humans. For example, the offence of insulting the modesty of a woman can be committed in the Metaverse if any male avatar commits any act (such as making a gesture) before a female avatar which produces some effects on the senses of the real woman behind the avatar, and which can be said to have insulted the modesty of that woman. Similarly, offences such as outraging the religious sentiments of any class, stalking, and criminal intimidation, among others, do not require the physical existence of the victim. In these kinds of offences, the primary target is the human mind. Thus, these kinds of offences can be committed by a user in the Metaverse because the user carries their mind into the Metaverse.
Similarly, civil disputes such as copyright infringement, trademark infringement, property issues and so on, can arise without the requirement of the physical existence of any human body.
Can one seek the identity of the user behind the avatar?
Now, it is obvious that these offences and disputes stem from the acts of the avatar. However, would it be possible to identify through the avatar which user has actually committed the offence or carries the civil liability? The identity of the offender is necessary for the victim or plaintiff because the law would take its recourse only against the human behind the avatar, and not the avatar itself.
In the metaverse, the victim would have no opportunity to see the face of the offender, engage avatars as witnesses, or get themself medically examined for the corroboration of their allegations.
Let’s say that a victim has to file a complaint against an act of a human committed through an avatar: who would they name in the complaint? How would the investigation agency trace the actual perpetrator through the Metaverse?
This can be resolved only if the Metaspace provider keeps track of each and every action of all avatars on its space, and provides the option to all its users to gather information regarding the identity of another user behind an avatar at any time, provided they have reasons to ask so. No doubt, this would raise issues with the right to privacy of users.
Then comes the question, if such offences are committed, which courts would have jurisdiction? In civil disputes, the jurisdiction (governed by Sections 16-20 of Code of Civil Procedure) lies where the subject property lies; or where the defendant resides or works; or where the cause of action arises. Since the Metaverse has no physical location, the options of filing at the place where the subject property lies or where the cause of action arises are lost. Thus, if two people from different states face a property dispute in the Metaverse, the option available to the aggrieved person would be to file it at the location of the defendant.
However, in the case of criminal offenses, the victim can file a complaint at their own location (by virtue of Section 179 of the Code of Criminal Procedure).
Will collecting evidence become a challenge?
In the real world, we have the advantage of body sketches by the victim, witnesses’ statements, and medical examination of the victim, among other things, for proper investigation and trial. However, in the Metaverse, the victim would have no opportunity to see the face of the offender, engage avatars as witnesses, or get themselves medically examined for the corroboration of their allegations.
Again, this can be resolved only if the Metaspace provider keeps the track of each and every action of all avatars on its space and provides the option to all the users to gather information regarding the identity of actual user who is controlling that avatar at any time the other user wants, provided they have reasons to ask for the same.
No doubt, the groping incident discussed above has opened a Pandora’s box regarding the law and its enforcement. It should be no surprise we are discussing this: as a society, we have been grappling with these issues as they apply to social media, gaming, and the use of the internet. As the experience becomes more immersive in the Metaverse, we will need to consider this in depth. As the Metaverse gets closer to imitating the physical world, damages (psychological, emotional, and even physical) become ever more real.
The Metaverse is coming faster than we think and we need to ensure our laws are ready for it.