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Home > Business > Special

Net-savvy? Read this!

BS reporter in New Delhi | October 25, 2007

The Internet continues to pose a challenge to Internet service providers and policy regulators. For the last seven years, Section 79 of the IT Act, 2000, stipulated that ISPs will be liable for third-party content (misuse) made available by them.

They would get off the hook only if they prove that the offence or contravention was committed without their knowledge, or that they had exercised due diligence to prevent its commission. The issue was tested in late 2004, when a (now eBay India) user tried to sell a pornographic video clip. Its then country manager, Avnish Bajaj, was arrested and later released on bail, but not before his arrest triggered a diplomatic spat between the US and India, and a host of media debates.

Matters have got only more complicated since then. The amendments (which, among others, suggested that ISPs should no longer be liable for third-party content) proposed to the IT Act were referred to a select committee of Parliament, which has upheld that Section 79 does make sense. The government now has to decide on its course of action.

Meanwhile, the new kid on the Internet block, the Web 2.0 phenomenon -- wherein users can generate and upload content directly onto websites -- is adding to the confusion. How does an ISP monitor the uploading of content by millions of users to, say, an orkut, Rediff, Facebook or Youtube?  It is also argued that there are only 35-40 million net users in India, so let the industry grow and settle down before setting such stiff regulations in place.

This is hard to buy because India is adding around 7.5 million cellular phones every month (30-40 per cent of which allow for web surfing, and Web 2.0 activities like m-blogging). Moreover, a single post from the current 35-40 million users may be picked up by search engines like Google and Yahoo and accessed by millions of other users -- both nationally and internationally.

It is this exponential power of the Internet that scares governments. The video clip (from YouTube) of Mahatma Gandhi doing a pole dance, and the virtual burning of the Indian flag on Orkut (again a Google-owned social networking site), are only cases in point of the unsavoury side of the Net. However, there are hundreds of other examples where the Net has highlighted the darker side of governments, too.

The point, though, is that in the offline world -- including the print and electronic media -- there are ombudsmen and courts to regulate the media and rap on the knuckles those who stray from the straight and narrow. But the Internet has no boundaries, and jurisdictions are blurred. In many cases, the servers of the "offending" ISPs are in the US. So all that governments can do is to block the site at the ISP level (they can't block individual links) for a short while.

China, for instance, made Yahoo part with user data and blocked Wikipedia, while YouTube was blocked by Iran and was recently blocked by most of Brazil's operators in response to a judicial order banning a steamy video of supermodel Daniela Cicarelli till it removed the clip and tendered an apology.

Hence, websites do need regulation, as well as checks and balances in their internal structures, especially given their exponential reach. However, considering the fact that there has not been a single conviction under Section 79 of the Indian IT Act, 2000, in the last seven years, it may be safe to assume that political rhetoric on controlling the Net will be tempered by the voices of millions of Internet users.

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