“Murder” in the metaverse isn’t a 25-to-life prison sentence — or even a felony — but it could be a crime, some law experts believe.
The Sun spoke to two lawyers, who have written about crime in the metaverse, and a former Manhattan prosecutor turned law professor about violence in the virtual world and if they can be prosecuted.
Two of the three experts said violent crimes like murder, rape or assault in the metaverse can arguably be speech-related charges like menacing, harassment or stalking.
It boils down to the wording of the laws as they’re currently written, according to the experts.
They’re written to protect “real, living people,” said John Bandler, who teaches cyber security and cyber crime at New York’s Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University.
The law isn’t meant to protect avatars or software codes, which populate the metaverse.
“I would view it more like speech or expression; less as a physical act against a person,” Bandler said.
“Then we can analyze whether that speech or expression is permissible, protected, or not.”
That argument feeds into the larger societal First Amendment debate about what speech is protected, what isn’t and what can be prosecuted.
“All the trolling, virtual bullying, threats and bad behavior online happens all the time. It’s nothing new, and it’ll happen in the metaverse,” said Greg Pryor, a lawyer at the lawfirm Reed Smith LLP.
“But if I say something racist or abuse someone based on their race or religion or sexuality, then you can potentially be prosecuted.”
Laws against criminal acts protect “real, living people,” not avatars, which populate the metaverse, one expert said.Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
A third expert – Patrick Roberts, of the Roberts Law Group – said it would be difficult to prosecute a typically-anonymous user and prove the user committed the act.
Consequences will likely be some sort of virtual punishment, such as a user’s avatar being deacativated or restricted, he said.
“And the person who used the avatar for virtual violence might be restricted or prevented from access for a time, maybe,” the North Carolina lawyer said.
“This is all conjecture and has free speech implications. After all, people kill each other in video games all the time without consequences. I can’t imagine a real world penal consequences for virtual crime.”
“I don’t think the criminal laws should be amended to protect avatars as people,” according to one expert.Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Will avatar get ‘personhood?’
This question split the experts who spoke to The Sun throughout the last week
Bandler, who has an extensive history and knowledge with cyber crimes, said protecting avatars through criminal law “could not work.”
“I don’t think the criminal laws should be amended to protect avatars as people. It would not make sense, and we have enough challenges just protecting people,” Bandler said.
A virtual reality headset is one of the ways users can access the metaverse.Shutterstock
“Online gaming means thousands (millions) of avatars are ‘injured’ or ‘killed’ daily. Indeed, such acts are either ‘part of the game’ or at least allowed by the game.”
Even now, very few digital harassment crimes or threats on the internet are prosecuted, according to Bandler.
“Every case is individualized, but a lot of threats get made and criminal enforcement isn’t frequent,” he said. “I can’t imagine threats in the metaverse will get a lot of traction with law enforcement.
The metaverse has untapped potential and an unknown amount of criminal acts.Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
“You can try to report them to the FBI, but good luck. The main recourse is through the platform.”
On the flip side, Pryor and Roberts said they can envision a future where laws are amended or new laws are created to reflect potential violence in the metaverse.
“Could the law give greater protection to avatars because they’re like our personal persona? Could the law extend protection? Yeah, I think potentially. But that’s not how it is right now,” Pryor said.
This story originally appeared on The Sun and has been reproduced here with permission.