Indian IT Giants Look Set to Play the Metaverse Game. Are Policymakers Ready for the Challenge?

The term ‘metaverse’ represents different things to different people, but at its core, it is the cutting-edge of digital communications and entertainment. This year has already seen several developments that signal the rapid development of this technological paradigm. In January, South Korea unveiled a long-term roadmap to foster its metaverse industry, with an aim to become the world’s fifth-largest market in the next five years. Similarly, Microsoft’s US $68.7 billion acquisition of Activision, the largest buyout in gaming history, is expected to turbocharge the race towards metaverses. India’s own task force on Animation Visual Effects Gaming and Comics (AVGC), announced in the Union Budget, offers an opportunity to position the domestic tech ecosystem at the frontier of a new virtual universe.

India’s own task force on Animation Visual Effects Gaming and Comics (AVGC), announced in the Union Budget, offers an opportunity to position the domestic tech ecosystem at the frontier of a new virtual universe.

A functional definition of a metaverse is that it is an alternate digital reality, based on a set of experiential 3D worlds, where users are an intrinsic part of virtual and augmented reality environments. Indian tech majors like Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys are reportedly gearing up to participate in this ecosystem. However, its immersive characteristic, combined with features such as the synchronicity of user participation and persistence of the virtual environment, will confound policymakers who struggle to govern the digital economy even in its current avatar. We reflect on four related public interest concerns that the AVGC task force could examine with help from civil society experts.

Its immersive characteristic, combined with features such as the synchronicity of user participation and persistence of the virtual environment, will confound policymakers who struggle to govern the digital economy even in its current avatar.

First in the list is the issue of user safety— an uncharted but important area for Indian AVGC markets. An early metaverse has already experienced its first case of groping and sexual assault. In two separate incidents, beta testers claimed that they were sexually harassed in a metaverse. Toxic behaviour in AVGC markets like gaming is not new. Harassment, assaults, and bullying are rampant in online gaming but the immersive nature of virtual reality (VR) adds to a whole new level of violation. VR in the metaverse plunges people into a multi-sensory environment, where unwanted advances can feel real.

Indian law has limited application to online sexual harassment. For instance, posting lewd comments, demanding sexual favours or showing pornography, are punishable under Section 354A of the Indian Penal Code. However, Section 354A mainly penalises physical contact or advances. It does not contemplate harassment through advances/groping in digital environments. Similarly, cyberstalking under Section 354D is not gender-neutral. It recognises stalking as an offence only when a man follows a woman and contacts her despite her clear refusal. Failure to identify/verify the gender of a stalker can render the provision redundant. The usual challenges of online anonymity will become more complex in metaverses that are sure to become hotspots of deep-fakes or hacked avatars.

The usual challenges of online anonymity will become more complex in metaverses that are sure to become hotspots of deep-fakes or hacked avatars.

Second, metaverses will require evolved user privacy protections. Metaverse engines will know both how users behave and how they react to different sensory inputs. That is, they will be able to predict changes in user emotions, through dynamic mapping and monitoring of posture, facial expressions, gaze, voice inflections, and vital signs. This will enable such services to profile the cognitive and limbic systems of users much better than what the existing AVGC industries can already do, challenging traditional legal constructs around privacy. As users move through complex virtual worlds, collecting their consent to process data will become unwieldy. Specifically, the notice and consent mechanism under the draft Data Protection Bill, 2021 will become ineffective. This calls for a shift in the current data protection to a more risk-based approach that is designed to minimise specific harms such as profiling based on biological markers.

Third, a proliferation of diverse metaverses will pose many new challenges for intellectual property (IP) regimes such as those for copyright and trademarks—that currently drive AVGC industries. Traditional IP principles will become irrelevant, if not tweaked to balance access and exclusivity in the metaverse. Let’s consider if a user creates a piece of art in a particular metaverse. Will this belong to the user or the metaverse service or the owner of the underlying piece of work or the developers of an app that provided the artistic tools? Also, who is liable for inserting unauthorised IP protected material into a metaverse environment?

Traditional IP principles will become irrelevant, if not tweaked to balance access and exclusivity in the metaverse.

Currently, rights-holders rely on online platforms and intermediaries to enforce IP protections. For instance, the Information Technology (IT) Rules, 2021, mandate due diligence by an online intermediary and strict takedown requirements for pirated content. However, notice and takedown regimes are ill-suited for piracy enforcement in a digital age where 2.5 quintillion bytes of data are created every day. The advent of metaverses will be an exponential data explosion, and there are already doubts about whether even telecom and internet networks will be able to keep up.

Such concerns only scratch the surface of the many policy quandaries that are likely to crop up with the advent of metaverses. For instance, competition and trade policies may need an overhaul owing to the critical and sensitive nature of technologies that will power metaverses. The technologies in question will range from advanced hardware such as quantum computers, to neural networks that feed hungry algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI). If the AVGC task force is to achieve only one objective—it must be to reinforce the urgency to modernise laws and regulations that currently anchor India’s digital ecosystem. This would make for an important strategic outcome to help guide an exciting yet daunting virtual world.

This article was first published on ORF.

Vivan Sharan is a visiting fellow at ORF. Noyanika Batta is a Research Assistant at the Esya Centre, New Delhi. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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