Media Watch | Web violations of privacy

(Appeared in The Hoot in its June 2008 edition)

The Web

When Rahul Krishnakumar Vaid was arrested in the capital of India in mid May 2008, the media went berserk all over the web, the world over. This young techie, who is just 22, had a few limelight-worthy points in his favor.

One was that he was a cyber ‘criminal’ whom Google had betrayed in a ‘worthy’ act of being a good friend to the Indian police. The websites and papers on the other side of the world had their fill on this point. The second was that he had had the guts to tarnish the image of a Gandhi; some of the western sites had a problem identifying the Gandhi in question, so they went straight for the most famous one, Mahatma Gandhi.

It all happened because a Congress worker in Pune had happened to see the allegedly vulgar message that Vaid had posted on an online community on Orkut called ‘I hate Sonia Gandhi’ and just informed the police of the fact, at least that is what the police say.  He did not even make a complaint, he just pointed out the issue and a high profile drama was enacted. The police applied to Orkut and Google who owns Orkut made it their duty to oblige. So Vaid is now in police custody and awaiting his fate of either five years in jail or one lakh rupees in fine. The participation in the hate community was not young Vaid’s crime, but the vulgar postings were what hooked him into the police net. The comment has since been removed so one could not see exactly what it said. His offence was limited to using profanity and as a member of an already existing community. The police have clarified in one of the reports that creating a hate community itself is not considered a crime but posting profanity on the Net is.

Orkut has thus claimed its second casualty in the privacy game in India within twelve months. In 2007, Lakshmana Kailas, another techie was arrested on the charges of maligning the Marathi icon Sivaji, and jailed for 50 odd days before the police found their information was wrong. The ISP Bharti Airtel had given them the wrong IP address and Lakshmana was innocent. Well, now it’s a battle royal for damages, between Bharti Airtel and Lakshmana, to the tune of twenty crores; a settlement has not yet been reported in the papers.

Such cases are not rare in the other parts of the world. In Morocco, a mere impersonation of the king’s brother on Facebook had caused a man’s arrest in February this year, but the man was out on a royal pardon by March. Google and the other companies operating in other countries have been doing this ‘good service’ for some time.

In Brazil for example, Google turned in some three thousand odd files to the government in a suspected pedophile predator enquiry, a well-deserved helping hand for the police, one agrees. In China, Yahoo obliged the government by handing over detailed information about ‘dissidents’ and ‘critics’ like Shi Tao, Li Zhi, Jiang Lijun and Wang Xiaoning which resulted in their arrest and imprisonment. Reporters Sans Frontières and the human rights group Dui Hua Foundation later exposed the whole thing to the world. Yahoo China’s search engine filters a thousand odd words before they give their results providing a censoring filter to the government.

Microsoft has done an equally worthy thing to serve their customer countries abroad. They censor blogs on their platform, like they did to that of Zhao Jing. Jing wrote under the pseudonym Michael Anti, and the popular blog on MSN Spaces was shut down on December 30, 2005. And all this brings us back to Vaid and his basic right, ‘freedom of speech’. The website of Reporters sans Frontieres shows day-by-day statistics of online media suppression around the world. It is to be noted that the internet has been made an ally in several parts of the world by repressive governments to aid their tyranny.

Vaid is guilty here of obscenity, says the Indian police, but then is his punishment commensurate with his crime? You have to  just look at rediff.com or sify.com, to see the number of abusive comments posted in response to an article or a comment. We  dont see the police moving in there. There are anti-North Indian  and anti-South Indian comments that make one hang the head in shame, but there have been no arrests made there or cases charged.

Should he be treated at par with the terrorists and cold-blood murderers? Did Vaid’s action create a law and order situation? And wasn’t removing the posting and warning the guy a better way to prevent this community from getting further notice? Orkut is not the only website where a user posts similar data. In any case, isn’t Google betraying privacy norms by giving up addresses of people who use the Net believing it to be safe?

Looking at the other perspective, the law enforcing agencies look upon the web as a providence-sent ally these days, considering that the crimes are mostly hi-tech and the possibilities of escape and planning are innumerable. The use of email in terrorist activities has led the police force to form cyber cells and the law makers have a permanent headache in the structuring of cyber law. Even more confusing is the fine line that separates breaking law and cyber freedom. This is where laws of privacy become prime areas of discussion.

All this activity of US-based companies abroad especially China has not gone unnoticed back in the US. The US congress will soon see a bill on Online Global Freedom which could see US companies held liable for censoring the Internet on their odysseys abroad. The Global Online Freedom Act looks at stopping the ‘do no evil’ acts but also bar them from blocking US government content online. US companies working abroad would be liable to penalty if they revealed ‘personally identifiable user-information’ unless it is to enforce ‘legitimate foreign-laws’. Civil and criminal penalties plus a fine of around US$ 2 million await these companies who violate the rules, once the law is passed. It would be appropriate to recall here that Yahoo has settled two cases with Chinese citizens over the same privacy issue.

Of course there are catches! The ‘legitimacy’ of the foreign law in question is ambiguous in definition, and will have to be case-per-case judgment at the US Department of Justice. Another neat catch is how this law would apply in the US. The President can waive anything under national interest. And it isn’t as if the US government hasn’t done this thing before. In 2005 the US government’s sub-poena of Google for about one million web addresses raised a hue and cry.  Google had refused to oblige at that time.

The bill enthusiastically propounded by Representative Chris Smith is now facing a rough period even though it has seen through three House Committees. The opposition is basically an expected one from the various telecommunication companies on its wording and surprisingly from the US Department of Justice. The latter has written to the House Foreign Affairs Chairman expressing concern over what effect it may have in ‘broader policy issues’.

Coming back to Vaid, all this may not help him right now, but even in the event of the bill becoming law; will the US companies have the same standing before the law of the land where they operate? It looks like the sensible thing to do then is to keep off social networking sites, unless you are capable of keeping off controversy. And keep your blogs likewise! That is, at least we have better privacy policies on the web. Or, the police might be knocking at your door!

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