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Bloggers' Rights Subordinated to Rights of Expression: Cyber Law Expert

Posted by Elonnai Hickok at Jun 03, 2011 09:40 AM |
Vijayashankar, an eminent cyber law expert answers Elonnai Hickok’s questions on bloggers' rights, freedom of expression and privacy in this e-mail interview conducted on May 19, 2011.

A set of rules relating to regulation of the Internet (mentioned in section 79 of the ITAA, 2008) was released in April 2011. In light of the rules framed under the IT Act, and as part of our research on privacy and Internet users, we have been looking into questions surrounding bloggers’ rights, freedom of expression, and privacy.

The new rules require among other things that intermediaries take down any content that could be considered disparaging. In practice, these rules will act to limit the ability of individuals to express their opinions on the Internet — especially for the bloggers. Though these requirements seem to only impact the freedom of expression of bloggers, a blogger’s privacy rights, especially in relation to the protection of their identity, are also pulled into question. Other issues surrounding bloggers’ rights and privacy include: if bloggers are identified as journalists, then whether they should be afforded the same protections and privileges, e.g., should bloggers have the right to free political speech and should intermediaries have freedom from liability for hosting speech or others’ comments? Are bloggers allowed to publish material that is under copyright on their website?

On May 19, 2011, through e-mail, I had the opportunity to interview Vijayashankar, an expert in cyber law, on issues regarding the rights of bloggers freedom of expression, and privacy. Vijayashankar has authored multiple books on cyber law, taught in many universities, and is an active leader of the Netizen movement in India.  Below is a summary of the questions I posed to Vijayashankar and his responses. 

I began the interview by trying to understand bloggers’ rights and how they are defined. Often the term 'bloggers' rights is used casually, but it is important to understand the different roles that a blogger plays in order to understand what his/her rights are, how they could be violated, and how they could be protected. Vijayashankar explained that a blog is comprised of two parties: a blogger and an intermediary – which is the application host. Bloggers have many different roles: authors, editors, or publishers of content, and thus, a blogger’s rights should be defined within these contexts. As authors, bloggers write their own article/blog or adds comments to others’ blogs. As such, they should have the freedom to express their thoughts and opinions and determine a level of privacy with which to maintain them, without regulation or censorship from a third party. Though the freedom of expression and privacy should be basic rights for blog authors, bloggers must also be held accountable and responsible for the content that they choose to make public by posting on accessible web pages. 

The need for a blogger to be held responsible and accountable is similar to the limitation on speech that informs defamation law, and it means that a blogger cannot be entirely anonymous – at least not once a blog is public and is challenged. Thus, accountability must limit the right to be entirely private and anonymous. Though a blogger should be held accountable, the international implications give rise to thorny issues of jurisdiction and accountability under unforeseen laws:  all of which raises the question whether, instead of local jurisdictions seeking to enforce their laws against potentially out-of-the-jurisdiction bloggers, an international third party should be entrusted with the responsibility of holding bloggers accountable and responsible – whether that takes the form of an organization like the WTO or WIPO or looks more like specially trained international arbitrators.

This challenge arises because bloggers live in different jurisdictions where different rules apply, but their opinions cross multiple borders and boundaries. This raises questions such as: Which jurisdictional law should the blogger be accountable to? Should a blogger be held responsible for actions that are considered violations in a jurisdiction in which a blog is read, even if those actions are not violations in the jurisdiction in which it is written? And if a blogger is to be held responsible, who should hold him responsible – the country where the action is considered a violation or his own country – and where does a private party have a cause of action? According to Vijayashankar, blogger’s rights’ are always subordinated to the rights of expression guaranteed to the blogger in his country where he is a citizen. 

Furthermore, the rights of a blogger have to be seen in the context of who has the "cause of action" against blog writing, i.e., which party involved has the right to complain. If an individual is a victim of a blog, and that individual is a citizen of another country and is guaranteed certain rights, the blogger's rights cannot override the rights of the victim in his own country. Hence, the victim has the right to invoke law enforcement in his country, and the law enforcement agencies do have a right to seek information from the blogger. If, however, a citizen brings a private civil action against a blogger, the discovery limitations are much more severe across boundaries, and the blogger’s national policy on responding to discovery from other countries will determine the extent to which information from the blogger will be made available. To the extent that the impact of a blogger’s expression reaches across boundaries, his actions should be considered similar to a situation where a citizen of one country does certain things which affect the rights enjoyed by a citizen of another country. It does not seem right that a blogger can say something offensive in one jurisdiction and be held liable, but a different blogger can say the same thing from another jurisdiction and be protected. On the one hand, since the Internet as a medium broadcasts across geographical boundaries, it is the responsibility of the individual countries to erect their "cyber boundaries" if they do not want the broadcast to reach their citizens. On the other, individuals should be able to invoke international laws to seek consistent application of standards about what is actionable and what information is discoverable in support of an action.  This suggests that an international tribunal might be the best solution.

Other questions to think about when exploring the idea of a trusted third party holding online bloggers accountable include: who would form the third party, what legal authority/power would they have, would this group also be in charge of reviewing a country’s "cyber boundaries" in addition to holding online bloggers accountable? and how would it avoid being influenced by any one government or by other stakeholders?

Next I asked him for examples of common privacy violations that happen to online users. A few he said included identity theft in the form of phishing, which leads to financial frauds, and is one of the most dangerous consequences of privacy breach. Other examples included manipulation of online profiles in social networking sites to cause annoyance, defamation, and coercion; cyber squatting with content which can be misleading; posting of obscene pictures with or without morphing of victim’s photographs to other obscene photographs/pictures; and SPAM – particularly through mobile phones – are all serious forms of privacy violations.

My third question focused on privacy violations and bloggers. How could a blogger’s rights be compromised, especially with a focus on privacy?  For bloggers, is privacy important simply to protect their identity and content, or are there other implications for privacy and bloggers? In our research we have looked into ways in which practices such as data retention by ISPs, government/law enforcements’ access to web content including private conversations, and poorly established user control over privacy settings on websites can violate online users’ privacy. According to Vijayashankar, a blogger is mainly concerned about privacy in the context of protecting his identity. It is important for bloggers to protect their identity because the content they create could be considered controversial or illegal in different regions. Thus, it is critical for bloggers to have the right to blog anonymously. An exception to this right is that if the blog is so offensive then the law enforcement agency can take action. In some countries individuals also can sue bloggers.  To help protect bloggers from unreasonable and ungrounded searches, Vijayashankar suggested that a mechanism be created by which international and domestic law enforcement agencies can request 'sensitive' information. This mechanism would work to filter and evaluate requests for information without bias, and according to a country’s law own domestic law.

I then asked him what legal protections he felt bloggers needed. He said that he believes that it is important that bloggers and online users’ right to anonymity, protection of identity and freedom of expression (political and non-political) are protected from excessive regulations. An interesting point that he raised was about the protection of bloggers from international requests for information. According to –him — bloggers can be protected only to the extent to which their rights are protected in their own country. If a request for information comes to a law enforcement agency of a country of which the blogger is a citizen, information may need to be released unless an “asylum” has been granted.

An example of the situation Vijayashankar is referring to is that if a blogger in India writes content that is found to be controversial by the U.S Government; the U.S Government then has a right to request and access that information, unless the Indian Government provides protection over the citizen and the information and refuses to release it. Though right to information requests tend to be governmental, this rule changes if it is a citizen requesting information. Very rarely can a citizen of one country request information about a blogger from another country and gain access. The question of international discovery over Internet material is one that has many angles that need to be taken into consideration – a few being: what the content on the blog contained; was the content against an individual or a government; who is requesting the information — a citizen or the government, and whom are they requesting the information from?  For example, in the US Supreme Court case, Calder vs. Jones 465 U.S. 783 (1984), information about a woman, Shirley Jones, was published in another state, but the court ruled that the wrongful action was directed to her where she was.

A large part of the debate over bloggers’ rights is centered on governments’ need to monitor online activity. Developments such as the new rules to the IT Act, the Indian Government’s request for blackberry’s encryption keys, and the news about the government wiretapping citizens’ phones show that the Government of India is demanding access to see and regulate content created by online users in India. When asked about bloggers’ rights and government access to content, Vijayashankar stressed that there has to be a mechanism to check the requests from government agencies, and any such mechanism should have popular representation. He went on to explain that presently an order for the blocking of a blog or for private information is made by a government agency or a court. Unfortunately, government agencies may be responsive to certain interests. Likewise, decisions of conventional courts can be inconsistent. Therefore, it is important that a mechanism that reflects the common person’s input is put in place. This could either be a stand-alone private body, such as Netizen Protection Agency, acting as one more layer of protection, or the government body itself could build in adequate public representation. Courts would need to recognize such bodies and seek their opinion as an input to any dispute. This is an innovative option, but one that is a radical departure from the view of a court as an impartial tribunal that is supposed to weigh every matter independently on its merits. 

Lastly, I asked if a privacy legislation could address the issue at hand i.e., could a privacy legislation work to protect bloggers’ rights by providing them identity protection and protection of their content and in general what should be included in a comprehensive privacy legislation? Though India already addresses bloggers’ rights through the Information Technology Act, it could be possible that privacy legislation could establish a third party group to work to protect bloggers’ rights and hold both governments and bloggers’ accountable.  When asked what should be included in a comprehensive privacy legislation, Vijayashankar suggested that it should recognize that privacy rights of individuals are part of the larger interests of the society, and a comprehensive legislation should work to take all the stakeholders into consideration. 

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