Government warned over need to protect the metaverse in Online Safety laws

Campaigners warn that ‘virtual actions are not adequately addressed’ by existing law or pending legislation

Parliamentarians have been warned that the Online Safety Bill may not currently go far enough to protect from emerging child safety threats posed by online virtual reality communities known as the “metaverse”.

Baroness Kidron, chair of the 5Rights foundation which works to protect children online, has been heavily involved in the development of the Online Safety Bill, and was instrumental in changes to the legislation that would allow bereaved parents to access their deceased children’s social media data.

During a meeting at the House of Lords this week, the crossbench peer discussed the emerging harms of the metaverse with parliamentarians, inviting them to test out the technology and consider safety risks it could pose to young people.

The Online Safety Bill, which is currently at committee stage in the House of Lords, seeks to legislate for social media companies to take responsibility for harmful and illegal content online. Firms that fail to comply could face tough penalties including hefty fines and potential prison sentences for individual executives.

However, there is some concern that the Bill may not currently account for evolving technologies such as virtual reality, and that legislation must avoid making a critical oversight by not considering how the metaverse and other immersive technologies affect children and young people.

The metaverse is a version of the internet which is experienced in 3D via the use of virtual and augmented reality technology (VR and AR), and is used widely for gaming.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) Safeguarding the Metaverse report shows children as young as six are accessing ‘metaverse’ platforms, likely with minimal or no supervision from parents.

According to further research, six per cent of children between 5 and 10 years old use VR regularly, highlighting the risk that thousands of children could be exposed to harmful content or the risk of online grooming in metaverse environments.

At the Lords event, ‘deep-fake’ imagery will be raised as an example where an offender could generate an abusive scenario involving a child they know in real life, and then interact with the scenario in the metaverse.

Currently, the Online Safety Bill does not cover how this scenario should be dealt with in the law, and does not consider how offenders engaging with child abuse material via VR could further increase the likelihood of carrying out abuses in real life.

Baroness Kidron, and Catherine Allen, co-author of the IET metaverse report, are calling for virtual ‘meeting’ or ‘touching’ to be treated by law in a way similar to physical sexual abuse.

They believe online VR platforms should also be held accountable when this abuse occurs in their environments, similarly to holding social media platforms to account for harmful online content.

“The metaverse experience is not just one of content, but of action, and these virtual actions are not adequately addressed by existing law and may be missed by the proposed Bill,” Kidron said. “The case studies are unimaginably distressing, involving images of real children uploaded into abusive environments. What starts online does not necessarily stay there, habits are formed, relationships developed and allowing a free-for-all of abuse is simply out of the question.”

She added that it is “crucial” for parliamentarians to understand the impact of immersive environments and the risks they pose, and that the Online Safety Bill could be an opportunity to recognise this.

Allen explained that the difference with VR and AR is that the experience is one of “doing” not just “viewing”.

“Immersive technologies are a powerful form of media, which can be used positively for society, but also by bad actors,” she said. “Parliament and government must address both the positive societal opportunities brought by VR and AR, but also the severe threats that this technology presents. In order to do this, it’s vital that immersive technologies are fully legislated for, and the Online Safety Bill offers a good base to start with.”

Zoe Crowther

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