UK police are investigating the alleged sexual assault of a teenage girl in a VR metaverse, in what seems like the first criminal investigation of its kind. The chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, Donna Jones, told the BBC that the complaint was made in 2023 and the inquiry is ongoing.
The news was first reported by the Daily Mail, which says the victim is a girl under the age of 16. The girl was using a headset when she was allegedly assaulted by multiple strangers, who approached her avatar and began touching it with their own avatars. The original report does not name the platform involved as Meta’s Horizon Worlds, though it does include a statement from Meta:
“The kind of behaviour described has no place on our platform, which is why for all users we have an automatic protection called personal boundary, which keeps people you don’t know a few feet away from you. Though we weren’t given any details about what happened ahead of this story publishing, we will look into it as details become available to us.”
News of the investigation immediately triggered debate across the media and social media about the police’s role in “virtual” offences, not least because existing legislation is ill-suited to defining and prosecuting such cases. The Mail claims that police have kept details on the case scant both out of a desire to protect the child concerned and because of “fears that, for several reasons, a prosecution will not be possible.”
One senior officer familiar with the case is quoted: “This child experienced psychological trauma similar to that of someone who has been physically raped. There is an emotional and psychological impact on the victim that is longer term than any physical injuries. It poses a number of challenges for law enforcement given current legislation is not set up for this.”
“We need to update our laws because they have not kept pace with the risks of harm that are developing from artificial intelligence and offending on platforms like the metaverse,” added Jones. “The Government needs to look at changing the law to protect women and children from harm in these virtual environments.”
There have been no prosecutions in the UK over offences such as this committed in online games or metaverse-style experiences. The frequent references to legislation are because the UK’s Sexual Offences Act (2003) defines both rape and sexual assault as physical, saying that if one person “intentionally touches another person” and the touching is of a sexual nature and made without consent, that is a crime. Which means the absence of physical touching in this case makes a prosecution under that current law impossible. There is also the problem that any individuals involved may not be based in the UK in the first place.
“We know offenders’ tactics to groom and commit offences are constantly evolving,” said Ian Critchley, the National Police Chiefs’ Council’s Child Protection and Abuse investigation lead. “This is why our collective fight against predators like in this case, is essential to ensuring young people are protected online and can use technology safely without threat or fear.
“The metaverse creates a gateway for predators to commit horrific crimes against children, crimes we know have lifelong impacts both emotionally and mentally. As such, our policing approach must continually evolve to enable us to relentlessly pursue predators and safeguard victims across all online spaces.”
Critchley cites last year’s passing of the Online Safety Act as “instrumental” and says tech companies need to do more “to make their platforms safe places.”
Conservative minister and home secretary James Cleverly was interviewed on LBC radio about the reports and the reaction. “I know it is easy to dismiss this as being not real, but the whole point of these virtual environments is they are incredibly immersive,” said Cleverly. “And we’re talking about a child here, and a child has gone through sexual trauma … we should be very, very careful about being dismissive of this.
“It’s also worth realising that somebody who is willing to put a child through a trauma like that digitally may well be someone that could go on to do terrible things in the physical realm … I think we have a duty to take issues like this seriously.”
The specific police force investigating the alleged assault has not been named.