“Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective. Their potent allies in this pursuit include Google and Yahoo.” So wrote Daniel Lyons some years back, in a classic Forbes cover story titled ‘Attack of the Blogs’. As the Senior Editor of Forbes then, Dan was simply expressing his extreme frustration at the utter nastiness of the Internet community, which seemed to have a super-majority of calumnious commentators, who thrived on the faceless protection that the net provided in order to leave shamefully slanderous and defamatory comments left, right and center. Cut to the present, and the situation has sickeningly worsened. Not just globally, but perhaps more so in the Indian perspective. Take a quick ‘surf’ across various pages of the Internet and it would not be hard for one to realise that every fourth or fifth page is filled up with some or the other pejoratively aberrant content against respectable individuals and companies posted by untraceable, incognito and spiteful writers. From four-letter words to bigoted slanders to sexist comments to racist attacks to clearly inflammatory and libelous material, the net is now so completely full of criminally damnable statements that one starts wondering why the authorities haven’t woken up to act on this issue with the greatest speed. In case of profiles of meritorious organisations or individuals, this ratio of deprecating content put up by abusive users often shoots up to almost every second page. Internet hooliganism, as I describe it, is the most contemptible character of the modern technology era, where it doesn’t matter how respectable you are or what your organisation is, or how you sincerely worked throughout the past many decades – irrespective of all that, you will be attacked anonymously with false statements that will make you cringe for a lifetime and with almost no hope for any recourse. As per a 2011 report titled, ‘The Internet and Corporate Reputation: What you need to know’, conducted by law service firm Olswang and social media analytics company WindFall Media, “60% of the companies that had been victims of untrue allegations or rumours on the Internet said the allegations were likely to have an impact on the company’s share price.” As the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner Kathleen Parker of Washington Post mentions in one of her articles, “The freedom granted by [Internet] anonymity and a virtual audience may have been a boon to democracy, affording everyone a voice, but it has been a plague on decency.”
The question is, why is all this not controllable? When a person talks negatively and falsely about you in public, the law provides for such a person to be immediately pulled up by both law enforcement and judicial authorities. Then why cannot the same rules be applied over the Internet, when someone posts flagitious and gutter-worthy comments about you or your corporation? Because of three key reasons, which go hand in hand!
First, as I mentioned earlier, is the wicked anonymity that the web provides to Internet posters, which gives them protection from being identified and prosecuted. Second is the hand-in-hand conspiratorial connivance of Internet companies like search engines, social networking sites, blog site hosts and even ISPs (intermediaries, in summary) that refuse to delete or block out the execrable comments and links and also refuse to confirm the identities of the anon-posters. Google, Wikipedia, Twitter... all of them fall within the same indecent category of companies. The third reason is the weak laws in many countries, as Internet is a phenomenon which is still unfolding.
In all this, the search engine giant Google clearly comes off as one of the worst offenders of them all. Being the search engine that a huge majority of net users employ across the world, Google has played its cards on an extremely unethical front and could well now be called the biggest slander-supporting media house in the world by its refusal to instantly recognise and remove perfidious and malicious content and to bring the irresponsible posters and commentators to task. It’s no secret now that Google marketing heads vying for advertising budgets of various corporations go to these same corporations calling themselves the “new media”. At the same time, they conveniently forget that ‘media’ ought to be responsible and should not hide behind falsely promoted aspects of freedom of speech. Then too, freedom of speech has never meant freedom to slander others through the public media. But for Google, the charm of attracting more users to its search engine by allowing them limitless access – and thereby to earn more money through advertising from its clients – is clearly more than the morality of going beyond the call of the law and removing objectionable content on their own rather than waiting for court cases to take their course. That means that whether you find child porn links on Google or you find links that trash products, companies or individuals, Google can still continue to claim to be the high-ground innocent party that, like Alice in Wonderland, has no idea that such stuff is being archived in their search engine links.
A well-known cardiologist of Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai, Dr. Ashwin Mehta, took Google to court, after he discovered that there were over 20 defamatory blogs on its website that accused him of professional misconduct, which greatly damaged his reputation and work. When summoned, Google India’s lawyers filed an affidavit in the Bombay High Court on June 23, 2009, claiming fantastically that Google India had no connection with Google Inc., USA, and that they worked separately. And because user agreements for the company’s blogging service (Blogger) was signed by Google USA, the Indian arm could not be held responsible for any harm caused to any party through the company’s Blogger service. Clearly, if Google’s court arguments sounded over-the-logical-top to you, don’t be worried, there are countries that have stopped buying such irrational, immoral and irresponsible defence statements by Google. In April 2011, the Court of Milan upheld an earlier judgment holding Google liable for libellous ‘search suggestions’. The order was passed after a court case was filed by an individual whose name-search on Google threw up search suggestions that included the terms ‘truffatore’ (“conman”) and ‘truffa’ (“fraud”). In March 2011, the Agence France Press reported that French courts had “found Google guilty of four counts of copyright breach, ordering the Internet search giant to pay out hundreds of thousands of Euros.” Strangely, Google France could not perhaps hide under the imbecilic argument that Google France had no control over Google US search results. In fact, countries like Australia have historic court rulings that emphasize how websites can be sued for online defamation even if they are based in other nations.
And in this context, the rules notified on April 11, 2011, under the Information Technology (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules, 2011, by the Government of India, clarifies that, hereon, those will not just be bloggers with malicious intent, who will get dragged to the table, but even intermediaries like all search engines and websites (which would include Google, Wikipedia, or even online payment & auction sites, social networking sites and hosted blogs), telecom and internet service providers (ISPs) and cyber cafes too, that will be held liable for all harm caused to the party – individual or a body of individuals – which has lodged a complaint. This war is not just a blogger versus an innocent tale anymore. The intermediaries are neck-deep in too. So any blog or uploaded content that “is grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever”, can be brought to the notice of the authorities, and legal action can be initiated against the blogger and intermediaries concerned. Even if you are an online publisher of content, a vilifying comment on your website can make you guilty by the book. And if a complaint is lodged against the site, at best, you could be blocked temporarily, and worst, forever. The best part? According to sub-section 4 of the notification duly signed by N. Ravi Shanker, Jt. Secy, Department of Information Technology, Ministry of Communications & IT, India & CEO, National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI), if any intermediary comes to know of such “an affected person in writing or through email signed with electronic signature about any such information”, it “shall act within thirty six hours and where applicable, work with the user or owner of such information to disable such information... Further, the intermediary shall preserve such information and associated records for at least ninety days for investigation purposes.”
Internet is the new media and the common man looks up to it as an ocean of facts. It can’t dish out crap. Anything derogatory can’t come up in search engines, should necessarily be password-protected and meant only for viewing purposes of the person(s) concerned or the ones who have access to that password. But it can’t come up on public search engine results, which the common man trusts so much. And Indian arms of organisations like Google, which make money in India by selling ads, should be made to accept ownership of the slander content they promote, by the courts. And a plea like Google India’s – that it has no connection with Google USA – should simply be rejected. A week-long ban on Google from operating in India by the courts, and we will see Google USA coming up and taking ownership of Google India as well! In Australia, the courts have thrown this argument – of being a US based company – out of the window and forced Google Australia to take responsibility of its contents as a 24x365 content publisher. In no way can any company (Google and the likes) be allowed to make money from India, without taking complete ownership of the content that they are providing in India and about India globally. Internet search content can’t be allowed to be made a forum for frustrated losers to vent out slander.
Furthermore, it is very clear that if defamatory content is allowed, Google Search can be manipulated by competitors to defame others. There is also the key question of what safeguards are there to prevent Google itself or its employees slandering any entity or individual through acts of commission or comfortable omission (refusal to act or deliberately delaying on removing illegal stander and defamatory content). Thus, slander can’t be allowed to be called ‘content’, especially since Internet is the ‘new media’. Media is synonymous with responsibility – one cannot enjoy media status without the responsibility and ethics that come with it. In today’s times, the government has to immediately take action with even the bloggers and anon-posters on the net who continue writing rabid schlock comments on the web. In 2008, after the death of a Korean celebrity due to cyber-issues, around 900 Korean government agents from the Cyber Terror Response Center trawled through various blogs, networks et al to “identify and arrest those who habitually posted slander and instigated cyber bullying.” India needs to do the same – akin to how the traffic police takes up focused weeks to regulate various driving behaviour. A few arrests and a few court judgments resulting in imprisonment, and I can assure you, India would start getting rid of the vitriolic and uncouth bunch we have sadly nurtured all these years since the advent of web forums. Freedom of speech has to be differentiated from freedom to defame and now more so, because far, far more important than the freedom of speech of slander-mongers, is the right to dignity and truth for every citizen!
- 22 February 2013 |
- Technology and Internet