“Sexual harassment” and data trading: the difficulty of regulating metaverses

The legal limits of actions in these virtual spaces are still unclear. This results in constraints already known to the web, such as cyberbullying or attacks.

Can an avatar be sexually assaulted? After several reports on metaverses, these new virtual reality universes are trying to increase their safety as the human brain struggles to distinguish between game and reality in such an immersive experience.

“I entered the common space and, almost immediately, three or four male avatars approached me: I felt trapped,” Nina Jane Patel, a British entrepreneur, told AFP. made the rounds of the American media.

“They started verbally harassing me, touching my avatar without my consent. Meanwhile, another was taking pictures,” she added.

His assailant then shows him the virtual snapshots of the scene. It was only then that the player, also vice president of metaverse research for virtual reality company Kabuni Ventures, says she realized it was “nothing less than a sexual assault”.

“No physical reality”

“Virtual reality is basically tricking your brain into believing that the virtual world around it is real,” says Katherine Cross, a PhD student at the University of Washington, who has worked on online bullying in particular.

“When we talk about a sexual offense that is in virtual reality – for example, a sexual assault – it can mean that, at first, your body considers it as ‘real’ before your conscious mind takes over. relay and assimilate that the act has no physical reality”, she explains.

The legal implications are still unclear, although the researcher believes that the anti-sexual harassment legislation of some countries could be extended to this type of act.

For her part, Nina Jane Patel, after having unsuccessfully asked her attackers to stop, ended up removing her virtual reality helmet.

Through the speakers in her living room, she hears male voices scolding her: “Don’t pretend you didn’t like it”, “that’s why you came here”.

This scene took place in November in the shared space “Horizon Venues” – the metaverse of Meta, the parent company of Facebook -, which hosts virtual events organized by brands such as concerts, conferences or basketball matches.

His testimony is far from isolated: several players have reported having been virtually attacked in the metaverses developed by the various platforms.

Protective bubbles

In response, Meta and Microsoft announced in February that they would apply a protective bubble around avatars by default, preventing strangers from approaching within a meter of them. Microsoft has also removed Hangouts from its Altspace VR metaverse.

“I think the issue of harassment will be resolved, because players will select the platforms they use,” said Louis Rosenberg, an engineer who developed the first augmented reality system in 1992 for the Army’s laboratory. American air.

The entrepreneur, who has since founded a company specializing in artificial intelligence, told AFP that he was more concerned about the “harassment of private companies”, which could soon record – and monetize – extremely precise personal data on players: movements eyes, heart rate, real-time interactions…

There are many embryos of ethical and security standards, such as the one imagined by the Oasis Consortium think tank. Among other things, it recommends setting up a partnership with the authorities to effectively report problematic behavior, and insists on diversity, particularly social, within the teams.

But, according to the engineer, it is the very idea of ​​metaverses in open and free access that must be questioned. And to ensure: “It would no longer be necessary for their economic model to be based on advertising but on subscription”.

Victoria Beurnez with AFP

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“Sexual harassment” and data trading: the difficulty of regulating metaverses

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