“Should murder and rape be punished in the metaverse?”

FIGAROVOX/TRIBUNE – Faced with the development of the metaverse and the opportunities it offers to users, the lawyer Laure-Alice Bouvier wonders about the legal and ethical questions that already arise in this “new world”.

Laure-Alice Bouvier is a lawyer at the Paris Bar and a doctor of law.


The virtual revolution is already among us. If you have seen Ready Player One by Steven Spielberg, you can have fun looking at what is now called the “metaverse”. A virtual world, i.e. immaterial, close to utopia, in which one can travel, discover new horizons, have superhero powers, after all an “open world” limitless to use terms beloved of video game enthusiasts, in which anyone can be who they want and who they want.

A playful dimension at first glance that suggests it would only be a game, even a passage of a few months, of a world without permanence created for or by “millennia“. After all for years the main reason to build a virtual world was to develop a video game (The Legend of Zelda is one of the most significant examples) or a movie (The Matrix Trilogy left a lasting impression on an entire generation).

SEE ALSO – Metaverse: real hell, virtual world?

Today it is clear that a step has been taken. Like it or not, the metaverse has become a part of our lives, and its existence raises both ethical and legal issues. In real life, not a day goes by without our news stories being punctuated by crimes and misdemeanors, each more sad and sordid than the next. If unfortunately we are used to it, what of the virtual world that is being built in parallel with the one in which we are used to exist?

How to decide in a purely virtual and entirely digital universe what is authorized or not (and let’s say legal)?

Laure Alice Bouvier

Metaverse is neither a platform nor a video game: it’s a new world. An unknown world about which we talk a lot, but whose stakes and scope we still do not really measure.

Anyone who says new world also says new rules, under penalty of a disorder that is difficult to control. The boundaries between the real and the virtual are still very blurred: should we really protect the virtual, which is by definition immaterial, by regulating it? Moreover, how to decide what is authorized or not (and let’s say legal) in a purely virtual and entirely digital universe? The law seems to have a card to play here. After all, the question is not new: it already arises on the Internet with offenses such as cyberbullying (harassment carried out by digital means is, let’s remember, an aggravating circumstance since 2018).

The law regulates digital crimes that have a very visible impact in the real world. But beyond the digital crimes we know today, there is also the issue of crimes committed online (such as rape or murder) in the context of an increasingly advanced virtual reality. Ultimately, the issue is whether a virtual rape or murder can be considered equivalent to the same type of crime committed in the real world.

This question is not entirely new. She was able to pose for the images of rape or murder transmitted in cinematographic or televised works in which, unlike the virtual world, the spectator stands outside and therefore at a distance from what he sees; therefore he is a priori the least involved or directly attacked. It had the opportunity to be reborn with increasing acuity with the first virtual rape that took place in 1993 in the virtual world called LambdaMOO in which players witnessed or participated in live digital rape, but only through ‘a text’ on the Internet. It is therefore difficult for this reason to determine the consequences.

Since that date, some Internet users have expressed their fear in the face of similar facts in virtual worlds that are increasingly realistic and completely new in their design. For example, a young woman stated in 2021 that she had been raped in the metaverse. The question therefore arises as to how to prosecute crimes whose modus operandi had never existed before.

When you put on your helmet, the immersion is such for the mind and physical body that our organism does not differentiate between the digital experience it is living and the reality of the situation.

Laure Alice Bouvier

The main difficulty lies in the materiality of the facts to qualify the committed act as a crime. At first glance, the constituent elements of the materiality of rape or murder are not present in a purely virtual world. We remind you that according to the criminal code, it constitutes rape “Any act of sexual penetration, of any nature, committed against the person of another by violence, coercion, threat or surprise”. Regarding intentional homicide, the Criminal Code states that “intentionally killing another is murder“. In other words, for a rape or a murder to be criminally characterized, concrete facts are needed.

In the world of the metaverse, however, should this materiality not be considered under a new prism? Undoubtedly, the metaverse immerses us in a world whose main feature is what is called virtual reality. But if this is virtual in its nature, it is very real in many of its effects.

When you put on your helmet, the immersion is such for the mind and physical body that our body doesn’t differentiate between the digital experience we’re living and the reality of the situation. A virtual roller coaster vibrates as much as the one frequented in amusement parks. The brain produces a psychological or even physiological response similar to what it would produce in the real world in the same situation. We are far from the effects produced by a television show or cinema. In the context of a virtual crime scene experience, extremely advanced realism can have particularly serious effects on potential victims, such as post-traumatic stress syndromes.

Would it not then be appropriate to radically change the paradigm? If the risks are not physical, the psychological impacts can be very real, as we have been able to verify with cyberbullying, which even if it only happens on virtual platforms, can lead to drama (we think of the suicides of Marion Fraisse, Marion Seclin, and many others…).

Added to this is the need to make more and more users aware that the metaverse is not just a game and that it is destined to become an extension of our current world.

Laure Alice Bouvier

There is also the issue of the impact on younger people, who not only need to be protected as potential victims, but who will also need to understand that a crime in the metaverse, even if purely virtual, remains very close to one committed in the real world. “real. life”. Remember that registration in Horizon Worlds requires a simple check box that proves that the user is over 13 years old (as is the case for social networks Facebook and Instagram). In other words, if necessary, the right to clarify this situation. Added to this is the need to make more and more users aware that the metaverse is not just a game and that it is destined to become an extension of our current world.

certainly Meta has already placed virtual barriers in its Horizon World and Horizon Venue universes to avoid any unwanted interactions following an initial attack and virtual harassment that occurred a few months ago. But the measure is still too easy, especially as virtual reality headsets allow for an increasingly realistic gaming experience, to the point of confusing an impressionable audience.

Finally, it is not insignificant to note that today the war of the worlds is raging, driven by the giants of the industry whose Meta (formerly Facebook) it’s top of the line. What is special about this new world? It is skillfully led not by public and government institutions, but by GAFAMs, which clearly show their desire to impose themselves even more on our daily lives.

SEE ALSO – Éric Hazan: “The Metaverse will blur the line between real and virtual life”

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