Revealing the incident in a Facebook group, a beta tester for Meta's virtual reality social platform 'Horizon Worlds' claimed that her avatar was 'groped' during the digital experience.
Originally just named Horizon, Oculus' VR experience requires a user to have Facebook account to join the virtual space, which enables them to see up to 20 people at a time.
Meta went public with the feedback on Monday, 1 December.
What the Victim Said
According to a report by The Verge, the anonymous beta tester took to Facebook and wrote:
"Sexual harassment is no joke on the regular internet, but being in VR adds another layer that makes the event more intense. Not only was I groped last night, but there were other people there who supported this behaviour, which made me feel isolated in the Plaza."
The Plaze is Horizon World's 'town square' where people gather, connect, and explore different options like games and other experiences on the platform.
What Was Meta's Response?
Following an internal inquiry into the incident, Meta reportedly concluded that the tester hadn't enabled one of the safety features – 'Safe Zone' –which equips the user with an option to block someone from interacting with them.
Responding to the incident, Vivek Sharma, Meta's vice president told The Verge that the woman's feedback was 'valuable' in making sure that the feature is "trivially easy and findable."
He also reportedly termed the sexual assault “absolutely unfortunate."
Meanwhile, a representative of Meta, Kristina Milian, told MIT Technology Review, "It’s never a user's fault if they don’t use all the features we offer."
As per Milian, Meta will resume their work to improve the experience and "better understand how people use our tools so that users are able to report things easily and reliably."
Offences in VR and Lack of Adequate Safeguards
According to experts, sexual harassment in the VR is still considered assault, with "groping" considered an offence even in the absence of physical contact.
MIT Technology Review quoted Katherine Cross, a PhD student researcher of online harassment at the University of Washington as saying:
"At the end of the day, the nature of virtual-reality spaces is such that it is designed to trick the user into thinking they are physically in a certain space, that their every bodily action is occurring in a 3-D environment."
She further iterated that these incidents are likely to produce similar emotional and psychological reactions as occurrences of assault in real life.
According to victims of virtual sexual harassment, Meta's 'safe zone' feature is not enough to prevent these instances.
Outsourcing of solutions may not be enough to tackle the problem, Cross suggests.
In India, while there are provisions to deal with online abuse offences under section 354A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), and certain provisions of the Information Technology Act, they don't specifically mention incidents taking place in the VR.
(With inputs from The Verge, New York Post and MIT Technology Review.)