As virtual reality programs are booming, so are reports of attacks, harassment and sexual assault. Some activists argue these incidents should be treated as serious — even criminal — acts. Authorities are starting to pay attention. This spring, under a grant from the U.S. Justice Department, the Zero Abuse Project will hold workshops to explain the metaverse and its dangers to state and local police. Last month, the international law enforcement group Interpol called on global police forces to develop protocols to address crimes committed in virtual reality, including sexual assault, the Washington Post reports.
Emerging science suggests that harassment in digital worlds can have a profound psychological impact similar to real-life attacks. Prosecuting virtual crimes would require a dramatic rewriting of legal precedent. Laws governing rape and sexual assault require evidence that a physical incident occurred, and while harassment statutes might technically apply, they often require multiple offenses and are tricky to prove .Some urge caution in declaring these real crimes, despite genuine harms. “People kill each other all the time in video games but we don’t call them murderers,” said law Prof. Aya Gruber of the University of Southern California, who has studied rape laws and called the prospect of jail a “blunt tool” for addressing online behavior. Others say the situation is urgent and demands immediate protocols. Dan Barry of the Zero Abuse Project set up a test profile mimicking a 13-year old girl on VRChat, a virtual reality program. Almost immediately, the girl’s avatar was greeted by male avatars, who made sexual comments and asked her to chat privately. “That child could be [sexually] assaulted by [an] adult,” he said. Experts say the immersive nature of virtual reality can make online attacks feel real. Researchers use the phrase “embodiment” to describe the intimate connection people feel with their digital avatar.