The recent incident of a group of adult men virtually raping a 16-year-old UK girl has triggered a worldwide debate on the safety, and the legal implications of digital crimes.
In a first, the British Police are investigating the incident. The girl was engaged in an immersive game in the metaverse — Meta’s virtual world — when her avatar was assaulted by unidentified men.
This incident is particularly significant for India, where the expanding digital landscape is yet to be fully covered by the existing cyber laws. Experts South First spoke to called this case the tip of the iceberg and said there should be immediate action on formulating or extending the existing laws to handle such cases.
The 16-year-old girl’s case is not an aberration. Nina Jane Patel, psychotherapist and co-founder of Kabuni, an organisation aimed at making the metaverse safer for children, was sexually assaulted on the platform in 2021. Since then she has been working to make the platform safe for children.
Patel spoke to South First and said that the UK case is just the “tip of the iceberg and there might be many more individuals like the girl and herself, who have been sexually assaulted on the metaverse, making it important for countries to immediately look into their existing laws to deal with such cases,”
Nishant Singh, Founder, and Director of Forensic Investigations and Consultancy Services, who assists in cybercrime investigations, electronic surveillance, and corporate intelligence areas from Noida said, no direct reports of similar incidents were reported in India.
“With the increasing integration of technology in everyday life, it’s clear that we need to be on our toes. Our daily lives are getting more tech, so we better be ready for any challenges that might come our way,” he told South First.
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The UK incident
According to news reports from the UK, the girl alleged that she was wearing a Virtual Reality (VR) headset and engaged in a game where her animated avatar was subject to a virtual assault by several men.
Though she was not physically harmed, the girl underwent suffered psychological trauma, similar to that of someone who has been physically raped.
The UK incident has been considered as the world’s first officially reported case of sexual assault on the virtual space. It has raised questions over the inadequacy of existing laws in addressing virtual offences of this nature.
Though the UK authorities are probing the case, they are apprehensive that the limitations in prosecuting the men under the existing laws, which narrowly define sexual assault as physical contact without consent, may not be enough to bring the accused to book.
However, UK Home Secretary James Cleverly, according to the New York Post, said, “Those willing to commit such atrocities in the virtual space may pose tangible threats in the physical world, and I know it is easy to dismiss this as being not real, but the whole point of these virtual environments is, they are incredibly immersive and can have a profound impact on the victim’s psyche.”
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What is metaverse?
Meta, the parent company, defines the metaverse as “the next evolution in social connection and the successor to the mobile internet”.
Gaming expert Ashutosh Rao from Bengaluru explained metaverse in layman’s terms. “Imagine, you’re entering a massive, online digital world that’s like a combination of the internet, a virtual reality video game, and a 3D version of social media, all rolled into one. This world is called the metaverse.”
“In the metaverse, you have an avatar, which is like a digital version of yourself. You can customise this avatar to look however you want. It’s like having a character in a video game, but this character represents you in this virtual world,” he said.
“Once you’re in the metaverse, you can do a lot of things just like you would in the real world. You can meet and chat with friends, go to concerts, visit art galleries, shop, play games, conduct surgeries, or even attend work meetings. The difference is, you do all this in a digital space using your computer, smartphone, or headset,” he explained.
The metaverse is a bit like the internet, but instead of just looking at websites on a screen, the gamer experiences it, interacting with it as if the individual is there in person. It is a vast, immersive virtual space where the physical and digital worlds blend, creating a new kind of social and interactive experience.
In simple terms, think of the metaverse as a virtual universe where one can live a parallel digital life, doing many of the things one does in real life, but in a virtual, computer-generated environment
The metaverse is highly impactful as it can elicit reactions to virtual events that are akin to reactions to real-life experiences. This happens when users momentarily forget that their experience is facilitated by technology, leading them to feel as though they are undergoing a genuine experience.
Although other media technologies can foster this sense of presence, no one does it as extensively as the metaverse.
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Why this case is of utmost importance to India?
The UK girl’s case sets a global precedent for the types of safety concerns that arise in virtual environments. Experts pointed out that with India actively engaging with and adopting to digital technology, especially among its youth, learning from such international cases is vital.
This incident not only offers crucial insights into potential risks but also the need for robust legal and ethical frameworks to govern behaviour in these new digital realms. This awareness is key to creating safer, more secure virtual spaces for Indian users.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg. There might already be several such women and men who have gone through harassment of various kinds. This type of assault might have happened but it may not have come out in the open in India. We need to take this seriously,” Singh said.
Also, the case highlights the importance of international collaboration in regulating and monitoring virtual spaces. With India being a significant player in the global tech scene, it stands to benefit from and contribute to such collaborative efforts.
The UK incident also highlights the urgent need for education about digital rights and responsibilities, as well as the psychological impacts of virtual interactions. By understanding and addressing these challenges, India can preemptively tackle potential virtual crimes.
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Is India legally equipped?
India’s legal framework for cyber crimes is primarily governed by the Information Technology (IT) Act, 2000, and its amendments. However, the rapid evolution of digital technologies, especially immersive platforms like the metaverse, presents new challenges that existing laws may not adequately cover, experts felt.
The Act, while comprehensive in certain aspects, lacks specific provisions for the complexities of crimes in virtual environments. Additionally, the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act and various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) address crimes against children and women but are yet to be fully tested against the backdrop of virtual reality crimes.
Concurring, Singh said: “To effectively tackle VR crimes, India needs to update its laws. The current one might not cut it when it comes to dealing with offenses in virtual spaces. The existing legal framework may not be adequately equipped to handle offences like these, necessitating updates to stay ahead of technological advancements,”
He stressed that India should indeed reconsider and expand its cyber laws to encompass virtual reality crimes comprehensively.
“There is a need for defining and categorising offenses that occur within virtual environments and establishing clear legal consequences for such actions,” he opined.
“The legislation should keep pace with technological advancements to ensure a robust legal framework,” he added.
Echoing similar views, Nina Patel said laws should align with concerns about child exploitation and sexual abuse in online spaces. Some existing laws might extend to the metaverse, particularly regarding the sharing of images of children and young people in sexual activities or being abused. These laws could be applied to the metaverse.
The challenge lies in addressing assaults or trauma that occur in real-time and are not text-based, but involving non-verbal communication and happening instantly.
Often, there is no evidence or means for a police investigation. Moreover, each platform has different mechanisms for blocking and reporting such incidents, making it difficult for adults, and even more so for a child, to handle trauma in this space.
“This often leads to these incidents going unmentioned, perpetuating a cycle of misuse of technology and abusive behavior, which children quickly learn and replicate. This is a significant issue in a three-dimensional internet where we are fully immersed and present in a digital environment,” she said.
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Assault on virtual realm evokes same psychological trauma
Nina Patel who shared her experience of assault with South First said there is a very thin line between the real world and the virtual world in the space of the metaverse. The abuse and assault feel extremely real and the physiological impact is the same as the person would face in real life.
Agreeing, Dr Preeti Galagali, adolescent counsellor at NIMHANS, said the environment feels real, and adolescents can become deeply immersed in it.
“Considering their emotional development and the fact that their judgment matures in their late twenties, they are highly susceptible to influence. Their perception of reality can become blurred, especially during intense emotional reactions. In stressful situations, their rational thinking is compromised, a phenomenon known as ‘hot cognition,” she explained
Dr Galgali said until about 15 years of age, the child’s decision-making capacity is not fully developed. When immersed in a lifelike situation, they may lose rational thinking.
For example, Metaverse worlds have ‘personal spaces’ to escape assaults, but it might be difficult for an adolescent to utilise this feature in a high-emotion state. In stressful situations, their rational thinking is hindered.
Second, witnessing or participating in virtual crimes like gang rape can potentially influence real-world behaviour.
The third point is the trauma caused by the virtual world’s ‘realism’. Mental assault in these environments can be as damaging as physical abuse in the real world, potentially leading to conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Unfortunately, the burden of proof often falls on the victim in these cases, Dr Galagali said.
“Children might be afraid to report such incidents, especially if they had accessed the platform without parental knowledge. There have been instances where adult women have been assaulted in virtual environments, but often not taken seriously,” she added.
Children are particularly vulnerable due to their developing brains, necessitating protective measures.
She confirmed that under Indian law, the POCSO fortunately covers non-contact sexual abuse, which would include virtual assaults. However, identifying and prosecuting the perpetrator in a virtual environment poses a challenge. Internationally, efforts are being made to address these issues.
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The UK case: An eye-opener
Cyber experts, Nina Patel and child psychologists insisted that the UK case should be considered as an eye-opener and make the lawmakers in India urgently rethink and expand the scope of cyber laws.
“There is a need to evolve policing strategies to combat online crimes in these emerging digital realms. Accessibility to such rooms and monitoring of such spaces is an absolute must,” Dr Galgali opined.
Singh said the UK case is a wake-up call for India. “Our existing cyber laws, while groundbreaking at the time of their inception, now require urgent updates to encompass the realities of new digital platforms like the metaverse,” he said.
Dr Galgali added that the IT Act and POCSO need amendments to specifically address the nuanced nature of virtual crimes, ensuring that perpetrators can be held accountable under Indian jurisdiction.”
She insisted that tech companies, too, must shoulder the responsibility. “The case of spaces like Horizon Worlds, developed by Meta, indicates the need for stronger safety protocols and user protection measures within these platforms. The Indian laws should mandate such safety measures, holding companies accountable for lapses that lead to cyber crimes,” she said
Experts opined that for India, a country at the cusp of a digital revolution, this incident must catalyse a thorough reassessment of existing cyber laws. The IT Act, along with child and women protection laws, needs urgent revisions to stay relevant in the face of emerging digital challenges.
As the virtual world becomes an extension of our reality, the legal system must evolve in tandem, ensuring safety and justice in both realms, they said.