Sunday 15 January 2012

Online content, law and challenges before big websites

By : Sumit Nagpal When the internet was in its infancy, no one would have thought about the enormity this medium of communication would gain once it gains momentum.  The governments did not take it much seriously and after the burst of dot com bubble, people thought that Internet shall remain confined to emails only. Reason behind such a thought was the failure of most of the websites which thought they will become millionaires once they start a dot com project. I still remember the days, when I used internet for chatting on Yahoo. And I must confess, just like any other youngster, my aim also was to make girlfriend through Yahoo messenger. 

But then saw how internet gradually started invading in our daily lives. Email was a thing of the past, everyone was busy in chatting, then we saw blogs, then came Orkut and gradually Google and Facebook changed our lives forever. Most of us know that to start a website is one of the easiest tasks in this world. You just need Rs.99 to register a domain and any developer shall make a basic website for ten thousand rupees.

The government never understood the potency and reach of this medium. In traditional style, if a person needed to start a publication, he was required to get his magazine or paper registered in Registrar of News Papers in India. The Government would do some background check, will also put some conditions and only then a person would be allowed to become a publisher. But internet changed it all. Everyone could become a publisher just by clicking few buttons. No one was required to take any permission for registering a domain, no one was required to have any journalistic qualification but everyone was a publishers.

And here the problem started. People who were not qualified became publishers and most of them did not even understand the legal implications. Some people started writing things they could not prove and internet became a tool to write whatever one felt about another. I am a witness to a tweet in which a popular TV Journalist was called a sl#t. As a law student, I was shocked to see such things. Not that I was shocked to see what people wrote about her but I was shocked to see that practically no remedy was available to her in law.

Problem with online content

The plus point or the minus point of the online content is that it remains and exists forever. If there is something derogatory/objectionable is published in a newspaper or a TV channel, the time shall heal the wounds and the damage to a person can be controlled. But in case of online content, it shall keep coming before your eyes. First when it is published and then when the search engines would again show that content in search results. So online content has much more shelf value as compared to Newspapers or TV

Delhi High Court threat to websites like Yahoo, Google and Facebook
I know Delhi High Court judges are not so immature that they will censor content the way China has done. But what I understand from the observation is that people, especially websites, need to think and device ways to deal with the menace of online objectionable content. The judges know that it is practically impossible to filter millions of web pages every day. But should be simply turn a blind eye to this menace or should we, to start with, atleast start looking at this issue in an objective way? Not that I am a great supporter of online censorship. But I am of the considered opinion that there must be some kind of regulation if not censorship.

Way forward

As I wrote, I am not a great supporter of censoring; I support some kind of regulation. Be it by way of an ombudsman or self regulation by the websites. If the websites are serious about not letting their platforms for violation of law of the country, they must think about it. If they fail to do it, not websites but their lawyers shall end up making money because of the potential litigation this issue will generate. I am of the opinion that two-way strategy needs to be used to handle this issue
  • In your user agreements, put a clause that the content submitted by the user shall not be violative of any law of the land. 
  • In the WebPages too, there should be a link that if some content is violating some law, the same material should be reported to legal department of the website.
  • The ombudsman, on receipt of a complaint, must track down the user by tracking the IP address and after doing so, a notice should be issued to the person publishing such content. 
  • In case, the person is not in India, the government/police must report it to the website concerned and the said website should be asked to remove the content.
  • The court must punish the publishers of derogatory/offensive content who use WebPages as a tool to abuse others

I understand that many of you would disagree with me on this issue. At the same time, as a law student I also know that we have freedom of expression but it’s not an absolute right. When we write something one the web, we must also think that the person against whom we are writing also has certain rights like right to fair trial and right to privacy. I remember what Uncle Ben told Peter Parker in the movie Spider Man “With great power, comes great responsibility.” So when use the power of internet to communicate things, we must use it with utmost responsibility. And this applies to each one of us clicking on the Publish button after writing something. 

Important matters coming up for hearing in the Supreme Court on 16.01.2012

Dear All,

As I informed all of you that our website Spread Law is undergoing some changes, I am putting this information on my blog.


Sumit Nagpal

Court1/29 (PIL) Safai Karamachari Andolan.
Court 3/52 ( PIL) Sarla Parekh v/s Union of India
Court 3/71 196/2001 PUCL v/s Union of India (Night shelter issue)
Court 3/73 ( PIL) Wasim Ahmad Saeed v/s  Union of India 
Court 5/5 Sukhram v/s CBI.(Telecom Scam)
Court 5/6 ( PIL) Bharat Jhunjhunwala v/s Central Electricity Authority
Court 6/31 (SLP fresh) Surat Singh v/s Union of India
Court 6/63. ( PIL fresh) Manjit singh v/s  Union of India 
Court 7/50 ( PIL fresh) Manohar Lal sharma v/s CBI
Court 9/15 ( PIL Fresh) L.k. Venkat v/s  Union of India
Court 10/26 (SLP fresh) M. K. Azhagiri v/s A.Lazar.
Court 10/204 CBI v/s Afzal Ansari.
Court 10/67. (pil) Anil Gupta v/s Union of India
Court 13/301. (2 pm) Ramlila Maidan issue.