In December last year, a 43-year-old woman donned her Oculus headset to enter ‘Horizon Worlds’, a virtual social media platform created by Meta, formerly known as Facebook. She was expecting to have some fun but it turned out to be a nightmare.
“Within 60 seconds of joining – I was verbally and sexually harassed – 3–4 male avatars, with male voices, essentially, but virtually gang raped my avatar and took photos,” she later wrote in a Medium post. “As I tried to get away they yelled – ‘don’t pretend you didn’t love it’ and ‘go rub yourself off to the photo’.”
Coined first by science-fiction novelist Neal Stephenson in the book ‘Snow Crash’ in 1992, the metaverse is a “3D virtual worlds focused on social connection”. People can access these virtual worlds with the help of a virtual or an augmented reality headset and interact with fellow users. In other words, people can ‘live’ as their own avatar in a virtual world, interact with others who similarly ‘live’ there.
The ‘virtual sexual harassment’ of the woman’s ‘avatar’ shows the dark side of the metaverse which tech giants are betting as the future of internet. While there is one part of the metaverse glowing with news reports such as the ‘first metaverse wedding’ by a Tamil Nadu couple, the other side, however, shows a rising number of cybercrimes.
In 2020, India reported an 11 per cent jump in cybercrime as per the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) data. The report ‘Crime in India 2020’ said about 50,035 cases were registered in that year under cybercrimes while the cases in 2019 were at 44,735.
Removing the ‘viruses’
Scams revolving around ‘infrastructures’ of the metaverse – cryptocurrencies and non-fungible token (NFT) – too are on the rise. As tech giants are starting to invest in the metaverse, the question experts are asking is if it will be safe. So how can that be achieved?
Vasundhara Shankar of Verum Legal, an expert on cyberlaw, says, “There is a looming and increased possibility of virtual harassment, identity theft and misrepresentation, breach of privacy, overwhelming and misleading advertisements, skewed and need for altered safety standards, etc.” These and many more possible issues call for a robust regulation that deals with the digital world specially, and mandates that companies dealing and introducing this technology be more and accountable, she adds.
Rodney D Ryder, Founding Partner of Scriboard, a legal firm, says, “Companies should ensure that the ‘persons’ (visiting in the platform) are verified and their real identities are disclosed. Especially, ‘bots’ or artificially intelligent ‘beings’ should be identified as such.”
Experts predict that virtual workspace will become a glowing feature of the metaverse. Here’s how: thanks to pandemic, Zoom meetings became the go-to option for work. Very soon, we will sport a VR headset and work with our colleagues in a virtual office that perhaps resembles our ‘real physical office space’. In fact, Bill Gates, too, recently said, “online meetings would move to the metaverse within 2-3 years”. But scepticism floats around like a stubborn computer ‘bug’.
Ryder, who is also an advisor to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, government of India, speaks on the need for companies to regularly “conduct awareness and training programmes”. Through his tech company, Metarion, Ryder has also advised clients on home office security protocols and training. He believes that these protocols need to be updated continuously.
Shankar feels that companies have now created several policies after the pandemic in line with the work-from-home scenario. “They need to work on holistic employee and information related laws and regulations, to ensure that their systems are secure,” she says.
The digital sarkaar
While the responsibility appears to lie on companies creating metaverse, experts strongly feel that the government should also come up with laws quickly. But has the Centre, in general, done enough to prevent cybercrime?
Shankar says, “The government has launched an online cybercrime reporting portal, cybercrime.gov.in, to report complaints pertaining to child pornography/child sexual abuse material, rape/gang rape imageries or sexually explicit content. The Centre has also rolled out a scheme for establishment of Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre (I4C) to handle cybercrime issues.”
Ryder, too, believes that the government has conducted various useful programmes and initiatives. “For example, the Computer Emergency Response Team [CERT-In] monitors cyber security from a national perspective,” he says. “There are other important initiatives such as Cyber Surakshit Bharat, National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre, Appointment of Chief Information Security Officers, The National Cyber Security Policy, Cyber Swachhta Kendra and Personal Data Protection Bill.”
No snooping please
Data is the new oil!, declared technologists, following the dot-com boom and the spike of social media platforms in the last two decades. Data collection of internet users helps tech giants to hit us with ads. Targeted ads equal more revenues. With Metaverse, experts predict our ad interactions and shopping experience will change, leading to an evolution in data collection method.
For example, fashion giant Gucci recently bought a ‘virtual land’ in The Sandbox, “a virtual world on the ethereum blockchain”. The company aims to create an interactive fashion store where users can try out clothes via VR headsets! Imagine more such shops in the metaverse where our avatar can hop from one ‘outlet’ to another for ‘shopping’. Thus, virtual platforms can target us with ads based on our ‘shopping’ preferences.
Writing for Mondaq, Vijay Pal Dalmia, Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Delhi High Court, says, “If the data is not protected, then the companies may grab the data and use it to deliver targeted ads and increase profits through effective ad delivery. On the other hand, social media apps may use the data to reshape our thoughts to trigger our emotions, and in this way, they can control our thought processes.”
Shankar has a warning too. “While technology products need as much data as is possible for them to work efficiently, such data can also be misused to misguide or influence users,” she says. “It is the need of the hour for lawmakers, technology enthusiasts and well-meaning individuals to think in confluence for the benefit of the digital world.”
Ryder cites the case of Justice KS Puttaswamy (Retd) Vs Union of India as an example of how companies can collect data ethically. He refers to some key points declared in the verdict such as “easily understandable and accessible information about privacy and security practices; secure and responsible handling of data; a right to reasonable limits on data collected and a standard of accountability”.
Beyond the virtual realm
Based on Bloomberg’s analysis and Newzoo, IDC, PWC, Statista and Two Circles’ data, the global Metaverse revenue opportunity could approach $800 billion in 2024 Vs about $500 billion in 2020.
Last week, Infosys launched Infosys metaverse foundry to “ease and fast-track enterprises’ exploration of the metaverse, including virtual and augmented environments”. Other tech giants such as Tata Consultancy Services, Tech Mahindra, Larsen & Toubro Infotech, etc., are also planning to work on tech such as blockchain that will play a crucial part of the metaverse.
Dalmia, writes in Mondaq, “With proper regulations and guidelines, Metaverse can be put to great use.” But he also cautions: Lack of regulation at the same time can be the heart of the problem. Proper regulation for the facial data, body language, biometric data, searches, or other personal data is essential to protect the users from data breaches, he says.
Even, tech giants are starting to acknowledge the dangers lurking behind the metaverse’s veil. In fact, following the harassment faced by the woman in Horizon World, Meta created a new ‘personal boundary’ tool. This will make users feel like they have a metre space between their virtual avatar and others when they access the company’s VR worlds, Meta said.
Will these virtual worlds be safe? Will they be as fun and extraordinary as the ones we have seen in movies such as Tron, Ready Player One, Free Guy or The Matrix? It’s in the hands of technologists as they build. Until then, let’s just stick to the smartphones in our hand.
March 06, 2022