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Why the Online Safety Bill needs a ‘metaverse’ amendment

Credit: Adobe

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET)

3 min read Partner content

The Online Safety Bill is an important piece of legislation which will help keep users safe in many forms of online activity. However, the bill is in danger of making a critical oversight – immersive online experiences, using technology like virtual reality (VR), must be made subject to the same provisions as other types of user-generated content.

As the Online Safety Bill enters the Lords’ committee stage, we are calling on Lords to amend the bill to future-proof it against harmful immersive online experiences.

What is the ‘metaverse’?

The metaverse is a powerful new form of digital environment that brings together immersive technologies such as VR, the internet and gaming. It allows multiple users to ‘physically’ interact in a virtual space without the need for real world proximity. The metaverse is big business. Some of the world’s largest companies are investing billions in immersive technologies every year.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET’s) data shows that 6% of children between 5-10 use VR regularly, which is the equivalent of two pupils per typical UK school classroom. This figure is only likely to grow. It is estimated that today’s children are likely to accumulate more than ten years in the metaverse – it is the next iteration of our online lives.

What challenges do immersive technologies pose?

The IET’s report ‘Safeguarding the Metaverse’ outlines the potential harms that distinguish the immersive online experiences from conventional ones, including:

  • Lack of supervision – Field research found that children as young as six are accessing the metaverse. As VR headsets are designed for immersive, ‘solo’ use, it is more difficult for parents to supervise what their children are encountering online.
  • New means of harassment – The sensory and immersive nature of the metaverse provides new means for abuse to be perpetrated. Research shows that users, including children, are on average exposed to abusive behaviour every seven minutes in VRchat – including graphic content, harassment, and racism.
  • Desensitisation – VR can create conditions that desensitise participants to experiences that would have previously been shocking, anxiety inducing or frightening. Desensitisation may result in normalising behaviours that are in the real world socially unacceptable or illegal.

Conclusion – why does the Online Safety Bill need amending?

The Online Safety Bill could be a useful framework for regulating immersive technologies as it puts the onus on platforms, such as the Metaverse, to take a safety-by-design approach. However, an amendment is needed because online-use of immersive technologies is fundamentally different to the conventional internet. The experience is not just one of viewing content, but of performing actions in real-time. Therefore, we need to address immersive technology on its own terms.

Currently, the bill’s definition of content does not reflect the breadth of live activity that can occur in these environments, nor does the current law adequately protect users from harmful immersive online experiences. The Online Safety Bill should be amended to keep users safe in the metaverse, and other experiential environments.

For more information about immersive technologies and the Online Safety Bill, feel free to get in touch with the IET at policy@theiet.org 

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