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On the Internet, how much is too much?

by Pranesh Prakash last modified Apr 02, 2011 03:19 PM
The Hindu carried a piece on 05/08/2009, discussing the Avinash Kashyap / defamation of the President case.

On the Internet, how much is too much?

Deepa Kurup

 

BANGALORE (05/08/2009): As many as 9,740 website links are thrown up when running a search with a phrase ridiculing the Indian President on the popular search engine Google. Of these, at least a few hundred websites host content that criticise the first citizen, often in harsh terms; one even hosts a game on flash player where you can fling virtual tomatoes on the President’s portrait. The Internet is inundated with such attacks, arguably offensive and hurtful, on several public personalities.

Last week a Bangalore-based engineering student Avinash Kashyap was arrested for allegedly posting “obscene content” about the President on the Internet under Section 469 of the Indian Penal Code (forgery for purpose of harming reputation). Later, he was released on bail. Police sources said the message was objectionable and not “obscene or pornographic”, as reported in some sections of the media. Two unsubstantiated versions did the rounds: the student had hacked into an official government website, and posted on her behalf: “I am a rubber stamp”. The second story is that Avinash created an online profile under her name and posted the same.

SC refusal

Using the web to rant, make unwarrantable allegations or defame an individual is offensive, to say the least. However, those who campaign for a non-invasive Internet argue that laws are often misused to target individuals and stifle dissenting voices. Recently, the Supreme Court refused to quash criminal proceedings against a student, Ajith D. He had been prosecuted for creating an anti-Shiv Sena community on Orkut. Ajith had argued that he merely started the community, and also pleaded that his life would be under threat if he had to appear in a Maharashtra court. “Anything that is posted on the Internet goes to the public... you are a computer student and you know how many people access Internet portals,” the court said, adding that he will have to explain his conduct in a court of law.

Debate

This observation has triggered a debate among net users and academics who differ on the private — and public — nature of web space. Those who advocate boundless Internet freedom point to incidents in 2007 and 2008 where a political party consistently clamped down on individuals that criticised it, often resorting to violence and vandalism. But were these isolated cases? Or can the Rama Sene — seen beating up women in a pub in Mangalore — use defamation laws against the retaliatory and witty Pink Chaddi campaign that spread though a social-networking site?

The Internet, unlike traditional media, is complicated for various reasons, one of them being that it is difficult to accurately trace the author of a particular posting. Gurumurthy of the IT for Change, a non-profit organisation, feels that Internet norms have to be evolved. “The Internet is global, and the laws also must be. The real solution can be a global public policy process, which is being considered at the Internet Governance Forum (a UN body),” he says.

The Indian IT Act, as it stands today, is being criticised as restrictive. Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society says the law is “unclear and over-expansive”. “If you are an individual blogger, a law like this could have a chilling effect on creativity and free speech. You could call this a scare tactic: by making examples of a few people and scaring people from doing what could be normal web activities like forwarding a joke,” Mr. Abraham explains.

The other argument is that technology and email gateways are seldom fool-proof. Lakshman Kailash, a software professional arrested in August 2007 for allegedly defaming Maratha king Shivaji by uploading an “offensive picture” on a social networking site, says “better clarity and awareness on laws is critical today”.

For no fault of his, he spent 50 days in jail because the Internet Service Provider made a mistake in tracking his IP (Internet Protocol) address. “I later decided to go public though this meant prolonging the agony for my family, because there is no awareness and accountability in the net space,” he says.

“I will never condone offending someone on the Internet — but if authorities want to keep the laws strict, then they must create awareness among users. Perhaps, websites can be asked to moderated content,” Mr. Kailash says.

Laws of the land

Google and such websites act in accordance with the laws of the land. Moreover, these IP addressed can be manipulated and a random cruise through websites or social networks reveal that the next offensive message is just a few clicks away.

As Mr. Kailash points out, thousands of bloggers continue to air their opinions, often extreme and offensive, oblivious to the repercussions. It is time they pause to think about the possible consequences, before going ahead with their blogging.

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