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Metaverse became a buzzword on the internet after Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of Facebook into “Meta“. But the word was originally was used in 1992 in the fiction novel ” Snow Crash” written by Neal Stephenson.

What is metaverse?

It is cyberspace or virtual world where people can interact with each other through:

  • Augmented reality(AR) is where a person experiences the real world interacting with virtual elements. E.g., a cartoon character landing on a real tree.
  • Virtual reality (VR) is a user interface that creates a simulated environment with the help of computer technology where the user is completely immersed in the virtual world with help of audio, visual, and haptic technology (people can feel whatever they experience in the digital or virtual world).
  • Brain interface technology is where the external device and the brain exchange signal to one anothe
  • In the form of an avatar which is the virtual representation of a real person in the virtual world. The avatar is controlled by the real person which it represents.
  • Cryptocurrencies are like money in the virtual world that can be used for buying or paying Avatar Fashion Clothing, Virtual Estate, NFTs, etc.
  • The NFTs enable access to metaverse for social interaction like virtual concerts and also enables access to the perks and rewards of the metaverse. 

Now the real world is going to embrace a virtual world which is like travelling, interacting, and living on another planet that is similar to this real world. We have all seen enough in our current cyberspace problems like cyber security breaches, cyber-attacks, cyberbullying, cybersquatting, hacking, child pornography, and many more. Now here comes the question if the metaverse is akin to our real world with more surreal interactions with no established laws or rules governing it, then it gives rise to various legal issues questioning whether this metaverse is safe or is it a meta “worse”. It makes one ponder what could be possible legal issues in the metaverse.

Main legal issues in Metaverse

Data privacy

Metaverse through Avatars will dictate the amount of time spent on the virtual life leading to more personal data collection like not just names or email, but more than that like behaviour, habits, tastes actions, preferences, movements, etc. This also includes biometric data where the verification methods like retinal scan, voice recognition, facial scans, may be needed for authentication. There is also a chance for the institutions involved in metaverse to obtain this information. For e.g, by knowing your tastes and preferences the fashion companies may advertise their products accordingly. The problem is that what if the data stored in the metaverse is lost or stolen or leaked because at present we can hear many data privacy breach by many companies.

Metaverse is a big database of personal and private data of users, making it more vulnerable to such data security breaches. For now, there is no law in place to govern such mishaps in metaverse or protect one’s data from being breached. If in case the data is breached who will be held responsible? The common rule in any data protection law requires the person who processes the data to be held responsible for the personal or private data. So will this rule apply in Metaverse?  The answer is Yes if there is exclusive data protection legislation dealing with metaverse. Will the current Data protection law apply? Let’s say the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will apply, the laws dealing with the transfer and processing of data outside the EU may need clarification given the nature of Metaverse which is “limitless”. We can infer that all the current data protection laws need to be compatible with the nature of metaverse and address the new data protection challenges that may crop up in the future. The only solution to such a new problem could be an international law on the protection of data in Metaverse and the like by all the nations of the world.

Intellectual Property rights

Metaverse includes many intellectual properties in it like music, fashion or sports brands, hardware technologies that support metaverse, etc. There is a high probability of infringement of copyrights, trademarks, and patent rights. For e.g, Nft as a trademark infringement is: A french luxury brand called Hermes sued a digital artist for an infringement claim in the US for unauthorized selling of its Birkin bags as Nft under the name “METABIRKINS“. Seeing this brands like Urban Outfitters, Abercrombie & Fitch and Nike have applied for trademark registrations for their virtual products (downloadable). The Nft market has already seen its share of disputes regarding copyrights also. The content owners’ copyrights may be infringed in metaverse since metaverse is so vast it becomes difficult to police if the content is being used in a way that infringes the rights of the content owner. The content licensee should check their license agreement whether the licensed content can be used in metaverse because not many such agreements have the permission to use the content in the metaverse. There will be many more disputes in metaverse in the future and the protection in it is a real question since there is no law that governs the protection of intellectual property rights.

Avatar interactions

The interactions between the users through their avatars will be similar to the real-world interactions, thanks to visual, auditory, and haptic technology that can make our interactions in metaverse surreal. This means that there are a lot of chances for avatars to engage in actions that are considered unlawful and illegal in the real world. These activities could be such as hitman services, murder, theft, sexual violence, fraud, trespass, etc. There is a recently reported case of groping in the virtual world i.e., a woman, who alleged that she was virtually groped by male avatars in Meta’s virtual world called Horizon Venues. She also alleged that she was verbally abused by those men. It is also reported that she suffered from anxiety after that incident. The Meta’s spokesperson said that she didn’t use the options to block or mute such users near her. But the victim said she couldn’t find those options quickly. There was also another case of groping on a woman who was a beta tester of Meta’s another virtual world called Horizon Worlds. The Meta’s internal investigation concluded that she had not enabled the safety feature given by Meta. Now one may get the point that companies like Meta want their users to be responsible for their safety. Meta has not even considered the legal consequences of such criminal acts instead wants its users to block each other. In today’s social media we can see many people faking IDs of others, and nothing will stop them from doing the same in Metaverse in the form of faking someone’s avatar.

Affect on Minors

The unregulated metaverse being akin to the real world hosts many bad influences that can affect children or minors. There has been a BBC investigation in which its female researcher posing as a 13-year-old, entered into a virtual reality room where avatars were stimulating sexual behaviour. The researcher was also approached by many adult men. She visited this virtual reality room through an app that allows users of a minimum age of 13. This investigation found out there are strip clubs in those virtual rooms, that the minors could visit and the interactions among the avatars had rape threats and racist remarks. As a result, there is a high chance that the minors could be exposed to such disturbing, harmful, and inappropriate experiences. Parents have to check, whether their children are experiencing appropriate virtual reality or not. Many apps allow the users to cast their experience to a laptop or phone simultaneously, where parents can check, what their children are actually experiencing.

CONCLUDING REMARKS: What is the way forward?

With the increase in the metaverse and the likes, there is an urgent need for a strong legal framework from the international community to prevent any illegal and harmful activities. Again with the increase in virtual technology day after day, it becomes even more difficult to predict any problems arising out of it. The users of Metaverse whether they be people, companies, or whosoever must at least have a basic understanding of how the metaverse works from a legal point of view to prevent any legal breach. The legal laws about metaverse will have to mature since the nature of metaverse demands it. The time has come for the world to embrace metaverse, as of now people engaged in metaverse should involve in it with more legal caution. They should consult metaverse experts and techno-legal lawyers to prevent any mishaps that may harm them or others and for a safer experience.

Author(s) Name: Maya Dhayalan (The Tamil Nadu Dr. Ambedkar Law University, Chennai)