Metaverse technology is the next big thing. As with any up-and-coming technology, there is a lot of buzz about it, most of which has been positive. In the metaverse, people are able to choose avatars and move them around virtual environments. This enables users to be more immersed in the virtual world itself by communicating with others using their avatars. While diverse metaverse platforms are unlocking new avenues for online interaction, some dark sides also exist, specifically a rise in sexual assault and harassment.
As the metaverse is flourishing, a myriad of organizations and agencies are discussing solutions to prevent potential predators from taking advantage of the metaverse. The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MOGEF) held a discussion on protection measures for children and youth metaverse users last September. Participants included a diverse group of lawyers, metaverse platform managers, and metaverse specialists.
Kim Sang-yun, a professor at Chung-Ang University Computer Engineering and a metaverse specialist who wrote a book about NFT and metaverse, took part in the meeting. Ewha Voice interviewed Professor Kim, who has been conducting studies about the metaverse, the digital twin, and the digital transformation of industry or daily life.
“The metaverse is not just a simple technology but a space that replaces our real-world experiences in the virtual world,” Kim said. “As young generations become immersed in the digital world, they often pick up incorrect notions about social order. This leads users to lose crime-consciousness and awareness of criminal offenses. Additionally, many crimes that occur in the virtual world tend to happen in the real world as well. So, the problem is not only in the metaverse itself, but also a conflict with the real-world order that is happening here.”
Kim also stated that sexual crimes in the virtual space can traumatize and scar victims as much as real-world sexual assault. He mentioned that the worldview of the youth, also called the digital native generation, is at the opposite pole from that of the older generation. In the new worldview, people’s digital selves, their avatars, are considered other versions of themselves. The activities in such virtual worlds fulfill the deficiencies in the real world. Consequently, the damage and infringement caused in the metaverse can seriously impact individuals.
By participating in the conference hosted by MOGEF last September, Kim encountered multiple real-life examples of sexual harassment in the metaverse. Taking into consideration the characteristic of the metaverse whereby people can move their avatars around freely, perpetrators perform sexually disturbing acts with their characters without consent. Also, victims are sent vulgar texts and emojis through chatting boards.
“The legal issues that we need to address in the metaverse are critical,” Kim noted. “Jurisdiction and institutional frameworks to fight crimes happening in the metaverse are not yet formed. In ZEPETO, a metaverse platform managed by Korea Communications Commissions (KCC), it is difficult to handle such sexual assaults because the metaverse is completely different from past games managed by the KCC.”
Kim suggested that metaverse platforms should be graded based on the ages of players as a possible solution to prevent incidences of sexual harassment within the metaverse. Additionally, he pointed out that the history of the user's play and conversation of the last few days should be stored in a server. That way, once any criminal activity takes place, such history can be used as evidence, enabling legal intervention.
In response to growing number of sexual harassment cases, a handful of organizations and institutions recently implemented pragmatic preventive measures to combat sexual violence cases in the metaverse. MOGEF and the Korea Youth Counseling & Welfare Institute launched an online public relations window for adolescents and young adults to easily access Youth Counseling 1388 on March 29 via ZEPETO. Youth Counseling 1388 is a 24-hour online one-on-one counseling service system with professional counselors operating under the Youth Cyber Counseling Center.
The online public relations window for Youth Counseling 1388 in ZEPETO allows victims of sexual violence in the metaverse to seek out help immediately. It is often difficult for users, especially the young, to judge whether someone’s action is an act of giving attention or violence. For instance, one common tactic perpetrators utilize to lure young users is to send out free game items or Gifticons. Youth Counseling 1388 prevents youths from falling into these traps that lead to more dangerous crimes.
Youth Counseling 1388 operates in various social media and messenger platforms including KakaoTalk and Facebook, making it more widely accessible to young users. The service channel is additionally designed to automatically appear when users conduct searches featuring keywords such as suicide and sexual violence. As of April 28, an estimated 900 users have accessed the service through ZEPETO.
“We hope that the Youth Counseling 1388 service could function as a safe outlet for youths to share their deepest concerns and solve their problems together,” said a representative from the Youth Cyber Counseling Center.