Metaverse : Blurred Lines for Criminal Law

The Buzz Around the ‘Metaverse’

The ‘metaverse’ has been the latest buzzword in talks of technological development in the past year with big corporate brands such as Meta and H&M, video games as well as celebrities introducing their own projects associated with ‘metaverses.’ However, there is still a lack of clarity surrounding this concept.

Metaverse of Criminal Law[Image source: Freepic]

The ‘metaverse’ refers to shared online space utilizing 3D graphics on-screen or using Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) systems. The term was coined almost three decades ago by author Neal Stephenson in his novel Snow Crash and its themes have extended to various scientific fiction works – one of the latest being the movie adaptation of the dystopian work Ready Player One. This in itself sets the tone of apprehension towards what the ‘metaverse’ has in store for us.

The pre-existing notion of the ‘metaverse’ existed independently – with one virtual world having virtually no impact on the life you led in the other. However, as in the interpretation of Venture Capital Mathew Ball, “The metaverse is a massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds which can be experienced synchronously and persistently by an effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”

In simpler terms, the revolution around this term signifies an intent of tech-enthusiasts, corporates as well as other stakeholders, to build the ‘metaverse’ around an embodied internet with multiple virtual worlds that are all interconnected. Just like real life, it may have systems of social and economical interaction all carried out through primarily systems of Augmented Reality. Speculations characterize the metaverse as the next evolutionary stage of the internet itself as Web 3.0.

Metaverse: A Playing Ground for Criminal Activities

The metaverse, as an emulator of the real world, brings with it a new space for old crimes – from social engineering crimes such as phishing to cases of assault and molestation to their virtual avatars.

The present speculations about the metaverse has defined it as a form of embodied internet thereby extending the scope of its activities across various sovereign territories. The metaverse has played the recent most prominent role in proving a complete lack of accountability for acts within these spaces, which leaves it vulnerable. This is obvious, with acts of criminal nature already happening in the individually-launched metaverse . It has been revolutionizing technological development, creating a specific lacuna in criminal law since it is a branch of law heavily dependent on state action, territoriality and jurisdiction. As the lines of territoriality and technology blur, so should the approach we take to bring in accountability.

Questions around Regulation

In the legal field as well as in jurisprudence, jurisdiction brings in authority of law and manner of sanction in securing law and order. While it is understood to be fundamentally connected with notions of a sovereign state as well as its territory, the nature of jurisdiction extends to itself the ability to exist without or beyond territory as well.

Proposed Approaches for resolving the issue at hand

The vulnerability of the users in the metaverse asserts the need for the immediate discourse around the rules, regulations or laws that would be implemented in these virtual worlds before the embodied internet materializes. The author hypothesizes three paths in resolving the same: firstly, the hard-lined revamping of how crime is viewed through extra-territoriality in the virtual world — including broadening the scope of punitive action and identifying the actors in the Metaverse that would have to incur liability; secondly, formation of regulatory penal laws of the exact nature and scope of international or transnational laws; and thirdly decentralizing the criminal legislation process by entrusting the corporations involved with regulatory powers.

The first approach would be a complete review of the current schools of thought pertaining to criminal law and jurisdiction – identifying victims and perpetrators to include AI, AR players and imposition of liability on them.

In the second scenario, an approach identified after taking into consideration the extent at which activities of criminal nature could take place in the metaverse, the jurisdiction that could have increased relevance is the theory of universal jurisdiction. This would create a legal infrastructure that reinforces state sovereignty rather than empowering a more global, transnational approach to solving problems and punishing wrongdoers.

The third approach that could be suggestive of the future to come is the regulations that are made in effect of existing laws pertaining to technology that will interlink itself with Big Tech’s Terms and Conditions of Service. Regulations acknowledge that criminal jurisdiction is intrinsically connected to state recognition and state sanctioned liabilities. However, in technology, the rate of change is almost too fast for state action in forming adequate legislation. For these reasons, the stakeholders provide some Terms and Conditions of use that regulate actions while utilizing their service, and in other situations are given the role of a mere intermediary.

Disadvantages

All three approaches explored have their own additions to the discussion in place and come with its own set of flaws. It cannot be denied that with the advent of the metaverse there will be a need to review and reconstruct criminal jurisprudence. Similarly, the principle of universal jurisdiction could be a vital point to begin identifications of laws that should apply to the metaverse. Decentralization in regulation is also a necessity.

However, multiple iterations show that the involvement of self-interest either from Big Tech or State using metaverse to expand its economic or political monopoly would be destructive. Understanding jurisdiction for the metaverse should have a set of rules that are open to enforceability by stakeholders from Technology, Law and even Non-Governmental Organizations.

The Oasis Consortium is one such example of a decentralized approach. The think-tank brought together experts to lay the foundations for an “ethical internet.” In carrying out these activities, it promulgated the first attempt at operating principles for Web3 called the “User Safety Standards.” Tiffany Xingyu Wang, the president and co-founder of the Oasis Consortium was quoted as having said, “The metaverse needs the Oasis User Safety Standards. We identified common pitfalls, distilled best practices across industries, and created a safety blueprint for Web 3.0.”

While Wang appeals to the peak application of decentralization with their ideals of self-regulations, others are less convinced. Some offer an amalgamation of what has been explored by the paper with decentralization as its foundation, it also puts forwards the scope of what would work as a Digital InterPOL while emphasizing that the decentralization should extend so as to embody the nature of the WorldWideWeb – open. Some even suggest that the governance should be aimed to be kept open.

Conclusion

While the nature of the metaverse and what the future has set in store leaves no choice but to speculate as to further development, the Metaverse has played a role in contributing to crime and possibly redefining criminal jurisprudence. Most users see the metaverse to be the natural evolution of the internet – one that they wish to keep decentralized and open, but also revolutionizes criminal jurisprudence. A multi-stakeholder approach and forward-thinking, innovative policy measures that prioritize safety seems to be the answer for now.

Author: Shivani Jathavedan, a third-year (fifth semester) student of B.A. LLB. (Hons.) Course at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS), Kochi,  in case of any queries please contact/write back to us via email to chhavi@khuranaandkhurana.com or at  Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorney.

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