Written by the labor law experts at the law firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr.
Previously thought of as a fantasy that could only exist in science fiction, the Metaverse is not just an idea far from realised, but a way into the future that will dominate the world in the same way that the Internet did. Metaverse is a futuristic real-life simulation where people from all walks of life can meet and live in the same likeness as on Earth, but with some twists and turns. Avatars, a central concept of the Metaverse, are a virtual representation of the user, the altered ego or personality of the user, in the virtual world of the Metaverse, similar to the game.  However, since the users behind the avatars have free will, the question arises – will it be safe in the Metaverse?
Can behavior be regulated to prevent any human rights violations by Metaverse avatars?
The Metaverse allows avatars to interact the same way people would in real life, including more egregious interactions such as hate speech, harassment, defamation, and theft. Thus, the Metaverse needs legal regulation to prevent human rights infringements. However, while the Metaverse is undoubtedly a radical evolution, Law is no stranger to the need to evolve when faced with changes in society. In fact, behavior is already being monitored in virtual spaces. in judgment Heroldt Against Probate 2013 (2) SA 530 (GSJ)The court ordered the defendant to remove the defamatory statement post from Facebook. A hate speech tweet declared by the Supreme Court of South African Human Rights Commission v. Kumalo 2019 (1) SA 289 (GJ). In the Netherlands, two minors were convicted of stealing virtual property, after forcing another user to transfer in-game items to them.  Japan has made cyberbullying a crime, a crime that can lead to a prison sentence in real life. 
However, there are obstacles to the enforcement of human rights in virtual spaces. The anonymity that likely goes with the Metaverse will make it difficult to identify the perpetrators. Avatars are often created with fictitious names that do not resemble the user behind them. Identifying the user behind the avatar may be nearly impossible. However, this is where Metaverse platform providers can play a role. Similar to social media platforms (for example, Facebook), the Metaverse platforms are likely to be regulated by terms and conditions that users must agree to in order to access the Metaverse.  Those who violate the terms and conditions, for example, harassing other users, can be reported and prevented from accessing the Metaverse. However, this will not be sufficient justice when someone suffers damages due to unacceptable behavior in the Metaverse, or in the event that a person’s dignity is compromised. Nor is it always fully effective, as evidenced by the racist abuse of English footballers Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka in recent months. Social media platforms were expected to be at the forefront of punishing and preventing harassment, but they lack the ability to make abusers suffer any consequences in real life. While law enforcement authorities managed to catch a number of perpetrators, many of them escaped with impunity. One solution could be that users need to provide information such as their ID numbers and residential addresses when creating avatars, so that the user can be held liable if they commit a crime in the Metaverse. This may raise privacy and data protection concerns, which have been in the spotlight in recent years. Therefore, developing the law, or creating new laws, will need to carefully balance the need for regulation with the right to privacy.
Will people be able to do and say illegal things in the Metaverse in the real world?
The presence of digital avatars representing real people raises certain concerns such as questions about what crimes can be committed in the virtual world and the verses that cannot be committed. The answer to a question one might ask about whether avatars can commit crimes in the Metaverse that are illegal in the physical world would be “no”. Life and crime in the Metaverse will be the same as life in the physical world. The problem or rather the main problem with avatars is that over time, they may have the same rights as people in the real world as well. This confirms the concept of rights and legal personality as raised in the International Cybersecurity Law Review Paper.  It is very likely that avatars will be given a separate legal personality. An example is a registered corporation, since corporations have a separate legal personality, they can sue and be sued in their name. In the same way the company exercises rights and obligations, which are generally found in legislation. This should be made clear, as to which laws would be most applicable in the Metaverse and which laws might not. Rather, the question to ask is whether avatars will have the ability to act on their own albeit using artificial intelligence to perform tasks and functions that would otherwise have been performed by their owner personally.  By contrast, if an avatar performs tasks and activities only when in control of its physical world, the outcome and punishment of the crime may be different. It is impossible to say that people will commit crimes that are considered illegal in the physical world. It will be difficult for lawmakers to strike a balance between protecting the rights of different stakeholders without affecting the intended purpose of the Metaverse.
Accordingly, it is almost certain, but most of the crimes that can be committed in the Metaverse are probably emotional and psychological in nature, but even if that were the case, they would generally translate to the actual person in the affected physical world, and laws are likely to evolve to account for this .
Will people be able to twist themselves into the Metaverse?
The issue of anonymity in the Metaverse was briefly mentioned, but the frequency of harassment in virtual spaces makes it necessary to discuss this issue further. In many social media sites, such as Reddit, 9gag and 4chan, users can use any profile picture, name or description of their choice. There is no obstacle for a person pretending to be another gender, age, race or nationality. In short, users do not quite know who the person they are interacting with. Metaverse, which will likely provide similar anonymity to its users, will face the same problems. Metaverse may also present a greater risk of misrepresentation – the appearance of avatars and the use of voice-editing software can make user deception more convincing. Anonymizing those avatars, Metaverse users may feel that they can harass or attack other users emotionally and mentally without facing repercussions. They may also be able to gain the trust of other users through their misrepresentations, and then abuse that trust to steal personal information for a nefarious purpose. This is known as “cat hunting,” and it’s common in online dating where fake profiles based on misrepresentations are used to gain the unintended victim’s trust (and sometimes even financial details). It will be necessary to be careful when entering the Metaverse.
Just like the development of the Internet, the Metaverse is likely to increase disinformation, bullying, hate speech, and even theft. The user’s financial, emotional, and mental safety may be at risk, but the law must be ready to adapt to combat this risk and keep users safe. However, the time it takes to develop the law makes it important for Metaverse users to act with caution and act responsibly.
- Kgodisho Phashe: A participant in the practice of labor law with experience in various aspects of litigation
- Fiona Liban: Director of Labor Law Practice, and Co-Chairman of the Mining and Minerals Sector
- Karabo Nmedipas
- Keegan Hislop