The dark side of the metaverse: taking your nightmares online

The metaverse might be a liberating and infinitely exciting new space for communication, e-commerce, and leisure. But some experts believe that it can also be psychologically damaging on a whole new level, with criminal law currently unsuited to tackle potential challenges.

The idea of the metaverse is utopian in every imaginable way. A world where physical appearance, ethnicity, race, economic background, and political hierarchies don’t matter. A world where lines between the real and possible get blurred; a world where anyone can be whoever they wish: a hero, a villain, or anything in between.

But once grounded in the reality of social interactions and human behavior, the idea suddenly reveals many imperfections. When hate speech and cyberbullying take more physical forms of avatars and carry personal implications, what will that mean for users, and who will protect them in the realm of codes and anonymous strangers?

Understanding the metaverse

The term has received much attention after Facebook’s parent company Meta renamed itself to reflect its new direction. But the metaverse dates back to 1992, first mentioned by sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson in the novel Snow Crash. While there are as many understandings of the metaverse as the companies building it, it can be broadly defined as a combination of 3D spaces or customized virtual worlds where users can interact as avatars.

Projected to be a $760 billion business by 2026, the metaverse is already expanding, with Meta, Microsoft, and Google announcing their plans to create new virtual worlds.

“The conversation around metaverse has re-emerged, and with the likes of Meta, Google, and Microsoft joining the bandwagon, the dialogue got stronger and is headed towards actualization in terms of rising interest in funding projects, expanding outreach of technological collaborations, changing paradigms in the marketplace, and an overwhelming response from users,” the report by Global Industry Analysts said.

But not everyone is quick to join the metaverse hype. The Snapchat founder, Evan Spiegel, is cautious about the concept. Although he suggested that Snapchat is uniquely positioned to lead the next generation of app users through a plethora of technological innovations, the word “metaverse” is avoided in their office.

“The reason why we don’t use that word is because it’s pretty ambiguous and hypothetical. Just ask a room of people how to define it, and everyone’s definition is totally different,” Spiegel said ahead of the Snap Partner Summit, according to the Guardian.

A regulatory disaster

It’s not surprising that policing will be necessary for the metaverse. Even during the first stages of the project, users are already reporting harassment, hate speech, and bullying incidents. Those expecting the metaverse’s greatest features to feel real should prepare for its more sinister sides to feel real, as well.

Nina Jane Patel recalls her traumatizing experience in Meta’s Horizon Venues, saying that it affected her no less than if it was real rather than virtual.

“Within 60 seconds of joining, I was verbally and sexually harassed. 3–4 male avatars with male voices virtually gang-raped my avatar and took photos. As I tried to get away, they yelled: ‘don’t pretend you didn’t love it,’” she said.

Meta issued a formal apology to Patel, with the company’s CTO previously admitting that abuse in the metaverse can feel a lot more real.

A similar incident of harassment happened with Parmy Olson on Microsoft's social VR platform.

"I was talking to another lady and within minutes of us chatting a guy came up and started chatting to us and following us around saying inappropriate things and we had to block him," she told the BBC's Tech Tent program.

Crime in the metaverse remains an ambiguous concept – quite similar to the metaverse itself. As it stands now, most lawyers agree that virtual murder and assault will likely lead to speech-related charges. And even then, the most probable punishment will also be virtual, with the user’s account banned on the platform. Current regulations are designed for real people and do not protect avatars from criminal activity.

“This is all conjecture and has free speech implications. After all, people kill each other in video games all the time without consequences. I can’t imagine a real world penal consequences for virtual crime,” Patrick Roberts of the Roberts Law Group told the Sun.

As we approach the metaverse, few things are expected to change. Lawyers are dismissing the possibility of enforcing charges to protect avatars since they’re “preoccupied enough with protecting real people.” Even now, the majority of cases detailing online threats and harassment get overlooked in legal practice. According to John Bandler, that is unlikely to change once people adopt avatars.

Meta, in turn, introduced a new “Personal Boundary” feature, which prevents other users from entering your avatar’s personal space.

"If someone tries to enter your Personal Boundary, the system will halt their forward movement as they reach the boundary,” the company explained.

Yet, experts are skeptical about Meta’s approach, suggesting that the company is already failing to prevent the spread of harmful content on Facebook, so there is little hope that things will be different in the metaverse.

"Facebook has already failed to learn about what is happening in online spaces. Yes, they have changed some of their policies but there is still material out there that shouldn't be,” Dr Beth Singler, an anthropologist at Cambridge University, told BBC.

Further regulations, however, will include other challenges, such as limits on free speech, privacy concerns, and more.

“As the metaverse becomes more mainstream, and there's no doubt it's going to become mainstream, that's when, I think, we are going to see more centralized regulation. You and I will create some land out there. Who will tell me what's allowed and not in my digital world? There will be a lot of challenges once the space grows and evolves,” Daniel Cohen, cybersecurity company Radware’s vice president, told Cybernews.

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