Last week I presented a talk at the European Academy of Law in Trier, Germany. The conference topic was the Metaverse: LEGAL CHALLENGES AND ITS IMPLICATIONS FOR THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM. ProSearch presented on the Metaverse in Seattle, Washington last year and showed how the metaverse could be used for corporate meetings. This conference was from a European perspective and not only discussed the current and future capabilities but also the legal and criminal considerations on its content and the behaviour of its users.
See here for copies of the presentations mentioned herein.
The first part of the conference introduced the metaverse and what it can do. Although defining what a metaverse is still under a bit of a debate one thing was clear: the metaverse’s origins owe a lot to the development of multiplayer games, gaming and its culture. Add to this the maturing of the Extended Reality (VR and AR), NFT and Spatial Computing fields as well as the motivation to bridge the social disconnect resulting from remote work in COVID lockdowns and you have the perfect set of elements to create a metaverse for a more corporate and business settings.
Lars Schlichting demonstrated a typical metaverse, The Nemesis, and how NFTs play a major role in its economy. He showed how users can create a ‘digital twin’ avatar walk around a virtual car show room, test drive a Skoda and buy items, virtual land and other goods as NFTs. It was simple, expansive but felt very much like a video game.
My presentation took this concept to the next step. If we agree that one of the origins of the metaverse lie in gaming, it would be fair to assume that it would follow the same development trajectory. Current metaverses use blocky graphics reminiscent of games in the 90s. This cartoonish look belies the seriousness that some metaverses are used for (such as the court case held in the Horizons metaverse) and could arguably contribute to immature user behaviour. As well as discussing other metaverse components my presentation showed the latest technology available for the metaverse including 3D graphics technology currently used for AAA rated games.
Below is a screenshot of the Unreal 5.2 engine and its Metahumans studio in which one can scan their own likeness with a basic camera and create a very realistic digital 3D representation of themselves. The still image does not do this system justice. Have a look at the full tech demo here: YouTube link.
Its fair to assume that in a few years this same technology will power metaverse avatars and environments to give them an extremely believable and life like appearance.
The Legal Bit
Presentations on the legal and criminal aspect of the metaverse discussed cases that may arise with a wider adoption of the technology. Unfortunately it too is reminiscent of the issues found in online games: sexual harassment, discrimination, coercion, verbal attacks as well as a troubling new trend of using AI to create deep nudes and deep fakes. An infamous case of a user claiming she was raped in the metaverse was discussed and dismissed as impossible. From a legal perspective, she may have been sexually harassed but not raped.
Catherine Van de Heyning, Professor of European Fundamental Rights and Public Prosecutor in Antwerp, discussed the psychological considerations from both the victim and perpetrator. Some victims report that a digital attack in the metaverse results in a physical reaction on them in the real world. The more immersive the metaverse the stronger the reaction. Perpetrators (and also third party witnesses) completely disassociate the two claiming that its just digital, nothing else.
At the same time, the intent of the action and the metaverse in which it was carried out should also be considered. If your avatar gets shot in the GTA5 online game that’s probably OK. You should expect it due to the nature of the game. If you get shot or harassed in the Skoda virtual show room then that is not OK.
Linda Bertram (Public Prosecutor in Frankfurt), David Silva Ramalho (Defence Lawyer from Portugal), Emmanuelle Legrand (Magistrate in Paris) each talked about what can be considered illegal in the metaverse in Europe, as opposed to other jurisdictions. Differences between the European and US definitions of libel and hate speech is one such element. European definitions of both are more restrictive than the US meaning that the European lawyers were unlikely to get any help from the US counterparts when it comes to those issues.
Evidence in the metaverse
Similar to how typical crime scenes are investigated collection may warrant getting a perspective from all witness of the crime. The format of such evidence is yet to be seen but it may be in 3D. How can we review that is anybody’s guess. The evidence of the alleged rape mentioned earlier? A clunky short video taken from the perspective of the user’s avatar.
Lack of standards between Metaverse development houses is seen as a major challenge. This limits the creation of a single metaverse and instead results in a multiverse of metaverses each with their own data formats that need to be understood. It also make the collection and interpretation of that data more difficult. There has been some movement in creating a standard but its too early to say what form it would take. Without public and known standards it will be difficult to extricate the evidence for review outside the platform
Policing the Virtual Streets
Interesting talks from Marc van der Ham, Senior Legal Advisor in High Tech Investigations in the Dutch Public Prosecution Service, and Marco Pancini in Meta, discussed how platform providers and law enforcement could work together to police metaverses in the future. The concept of virtual agents working alongside moderators in Meta was thought of as probable. INTERPOL has already made a test metaverse to train agents on how to police and handle metaverse crime.
Diederik Don, of the Europol Innovation Lab in Europol discussed how some Nordic countries already have such policing divisions and have started to train police forces in other countries. His finding have been published in a very progressive document Policing in the metaverse – what law enforcement needs to know.
Policing the metaverse is thought to be the next frontier but is fraught with challenges both technological and societal. It requires deep integration with the metaverse creators as well as the judiciary. It complicated and constantly evolving. The opportunity is to get working together early and build in policing from the start rather than wait for the technology to be developed and catching up with policies after the fact.