“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity”
– Albert Einstein
The above quote by one of the brightest minds alive is crucial in the capacity that the world is progressing towards a future in which technology will overpower humanity. We can already see the overshadow of the dark ages that threaten to cloud our clear skies if enough thought is not being put into the progression of technology. The internet has become a hundred thousand times more dangerous than it was only a few years ago with the rise of virtual reality software and the advancement in the artificial reality fields. Without a question it has brought up heaps of benefits for humanity but what about the crimes and misdemeanours that accompany it? Who will be responsible for crimes which occur in the artificial realities? These are some striking questions which are left unanswered.
SEXUAL ASSAULT IN THE INDIAN PENAL CODE
Before we dive into the intricacies of any competent topic, we must get rid of any discrepancies regarding the actual subject matter at hand. Hence it becomes pertinent to understand what exactly sexual assault is. As per the Indian Penal Code of 1860 Sexual Assault can be defined as: “Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any woman, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage her modesty, [shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than one year but which may extend to five years, and shall also be liable to fine].”
THE METAVERSE EXPLAINED
Hence, we now have an idea that what constitutes sexual assault. To better understand the concepts involved it is imperative for us to get accustomed to the idea of the Metaverse. Metaverse is not specifically a tool or a piece of technology per se but a whole new dimension of communication and interaction between us humans. Broadly speaking a Metaverse can be a collection of 3D modelled virtual universes which are hotspots of social interaction and built around customer engagement. It is a digital environment which uses technologies like Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and the concepts of blockchain to create a digital environment with rich user interaction which mimics the real world. It is a creation of Meta (formerly Facebook) which has in recent times pushed severely for digitalisation and virtual socialisation.
THE MAIN PROBLEM AT HAND
Sexual assaults which are rampant and ever-increasing in the real world pose a big threat to the protection of women. Now that women are not even safe in the virtual spaces raises questions about our drowning humanity and also the questions of law. Recently a woman claimed that she was assaulted in one of the metaverses and that people were viewing and enjoying it and passing virtual cans of soda around. It is horrific, to say the least, but it also raises some pertinent questions of law. What crime will the perpetrators be charged with? How will it be proved who actually did what provided that anyone could use anyone’s computer and use their avatar? It’s basically a legal nightmare, to say the least. Recently, Nina Jana Patel wrote on Medium that her avatar was groped by a group of 4 men and assaulted. When she penned down her ordeal, she was met with hostility with people saying that “it wasn’t real” “you have no legal case” and the following lines. The Vice President of Meta’s Horizon, the app where this ordeal happened, has said that although the event is unfortunate, the event could have been prevented by turning on the “safety bubble” feature in the app which creates an impenetrable bubble around the avatar. The company is resting upon this feature to shove off any responsibility upon the victims themselves that it was their inefficiency and fault that the events occurred. This incident is one in a series of recent events in which similar things have happened to people around the world. This is a pressing problem that has no imminent solution as far other than the victims being vigilant and using the safety bubble feature.
THE LEGAL ANGLE TO THE PROBLEM IN QUESTION
The legal angle is quite murky where a lot of fog surrounds the legal set-up. If we take up the case of Nina Jana Patel, we see that although she claims to have been raped in the metaverse, surprisingly the lower half of the body of the avatars are absent, so how could the rape have possibly happened. Sexual Assault is defined under Section 354 and 354a of the Indian Penal Code and rape has been defined in Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code. For offences to occur under both sections it is pertinent for the physical touch to the place. Now the substantial question of law which arises is whether a touch in the virtual world is the same as a touch in the real world? This poses a functional question as to how will these cases be evaluated as we don’t have the present legal backing to evaluate these cases. No section of the Penal Code has provisions which classify the crimes being committed as the penal code was not made keeping in view what the situation will be a 100 years later. There are other concerns of law which are that as these platforms are across the country then which countries law will be enforced upon the perpetrator? The perpetrator would like his country to try him and vice versa. This is a fixing situation in which no real solution will come out unless we have done enough research.
The problem in the metaverse is a crucial one with the world slowly drifting towards the metaverse and people starting to stroll around virtually. If people start feeling unsafe and are not secure then it will be a big loss for the company, hence the company promises to look into the matter and to make the safety bubble feature more accessible so that no other person is forced to quit the metaverse. We have to strive to develop each other as humans before we submit to the slavery of the technology. There has to be a uniform law governing crimes against women and crimes against all in general. There are safety tools which are universally accessible. We need laws specially curated for these situations because in future such crimes and other crimes are high. Even the perpetrator could be anonymous and hence posing difficulty in catching the actual culprit. We need to walk on pace with the situations being created and be up to date with the crimes being committed. The metaverse should be a platform for inclusion and not for exclusion and hate. It is our duty to make our society crime-free and now we also need to monitor the virtual world.
Author(s) Name: Ayush Tripathi (Maharashtra National Law University, Nagpur)