Digital predators in cyberspaces: Sexual Assaults in Virtual Reality

The impact of sexual assault, even virtual, on people is real. Even virtual events yield deep psychological trauma.
Digital predators in cyberspaces: Sexual Assaults in Virtual Reality
Digital predators in cyberspaces: Sexual Assaults in Virtual Reality

(Trigger Warning: Discussions on topics of sexual abuse)

New Delhi: The line between virtual reality and real life is blurring fast. A user and their online avatar, a virtual representation of themselves, are more interlinked than it would appear on the surface. After all, virtual reality offers people an opportunity to experience exotic, adventurous and audacious worlds, from the comfort of a home.

At times, however, negative circumstances can mar the fantastical experience of virtual reality.

Recently, news reports surfaced of a 16-year-old user from the United Kingdom being allegedly sexually assaulted by several other avatars on Metaverse – the virtual reality platform operated by Meta. Some argued if this would constitute ‘rape’ at all. The avatar, being a digital creation, can surely do no harm to its 16-year-old human, right?

That is not true. The impact of sexual assault, even virtual, on people is real. Even virtual events yield deep psychological trauma.

Researchers in Metaverse faced assault

The UK incident is not new. Sexual crimes in digitised universes were reported earlier on Meta’s pilot virtual reality platform, Horizon Worlds.

In 2021, a beta tester complained that her avatar was groped by another user. In 2022, a member of a non-profit spent time researching Horizon Worlds. Reportedly, the researcher was sexually assaulted in less than an hour. Two male avatars pushed her into a corner, passing sexually perverse remarks. Another incident surfaced where a female avatar was groped by four men, who again texted lewd remarks.

Abuse on VR platforms such as Metaverse, has unfortunately become all-too-common.

The Metaverse hosts a wide range of attractive games, augmented reality, and 3D virtual environments, making sure there is something to experience for just about everyone. Virtual reality as a concept pushes the boundaries of a virtual experience, amplifying the user’s experience so that it feels as real as possible. Completely immersed in this environment, it can be hard to remove oneself, or forget, about any negative situation that occurs online.

As with any other immersive experience, virtual reality can make space for psychological and mental harm. Harassment can take several forms apart from the physical – verbal, auditory and virtual. A user may still suffer psychological trauma through actions performed on their immersive and ‘real’ VR avatars.

Laws monitoring VR worlds should protect minors

To complicate matters, minors (aged below 18 years in most jurisdictions) account for a large number of users/visitors on such VR platforms. It becomes crucial to incorporate techno-legal tools to make the VR platforms safe and reliable for such vulnerable groups.

The laws need to be updated. In the UK, for the perpetrator to be charged with sexual assault, physical contact is necessary. This places restrictions on effectively charging the perpetrator. Vulnerable groups such as women, children, elderly, religious and sexual minorities will be at greater risk of exploitation and harassment online. Specific protections must be carved out in laws to protect such groups online.

India’s plans to regulate cyberspaces

The Government of India has taken steps to protect users online. The recent enactment of the Guidelines on Dark Patterns by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs is an apt example.

The Information Technology Rules, 2021 further lays down certain guidelines for intermediaries to follow to mitigate harms taking place online. Measures such as the active removal of prohibited content, a 24-hour acknowledgment of complaints, and the presence of a grievance officer for registering complaints against content have streamlined user experience online.

In the coming years, grievances by users complaining against other users in VR and augmented reality (AR) worlds are likely to increase. Wider accessibility and cheaper technology will increase the user base for such technologies. Regulation, therefore, becomes necessary.

Big tech must incorporate safety measures

Big tech companies must ensure that privacy and user safety are built into the technology deployed. This should be carried out during the process of developing the product; feedback and participation of different sections of society are necessary for such a process to work.

Establishing simple and easy-to-find safety tools within VR games has become the need of the hour. Guidelines on the concepts of consent, intrusive actions, and behaviour violating terms of use need to be clearly laid down. Easy grievance redressal tools will further enable a safer online environment for those who have been subjected to any form of harassment.

Meta and other platforms are investing huge sums of money into VR platforms such as the Metaverse. While they are great avenues for enjoyment and adventure, VR platforms need to be regulated closely. It is incumbent on tech companies to roll out platforms only after proper safeguards and safety tools for users are included.

The Metaverse has much to offer and it must not become a vitriolic platform dominated by abuse.

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