Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Internet a free forum for expression as well to keep check on misuse of the medium

Internet is an information source, a forum for freedom of expression and an easy means of commerce and communication. There are an estimated 50 million active Internet users in India, with the numbers slated to double in a year. But it can bounce back on users as well, as India's mostly young online users are learning, sometimes the hard way.

This month, police arrested Rahul Krishnakumar Vaid, an information technology (IT) consultant in his early 20s, for posting "offensive" comments on Goggle’s popular social networking site, Orkut.

Vaid, stays in the Delhi suburb of Gurgaon, had posted his views in a forum "I hate Sonia Gandhi". Sonia Gandhi is a national political leader and president of the Congress party that leads the federal government. The police used internet and collected information about Vaid personal information from goggle to trace Vaid after collecting his personal information from Goggle.

Vaid was charged under Section 67 and could have ended up in jail for five years under India's tough IT-Act 2000, which relates to publication of obscene information in electronic content.

As per Indian law, especially section 292 of the Indian penal code, connected to freedom of expression, criticisms are permit able as long as they are done in a civil manner. However, action can be taken against obscenities, communal messages and sacrilege; charges also open to abuse and wide subjective interpretation.

Goggle spokesperson while disproving opinion in the Vaid case, that passing on user information is a raid of privacy said while the company supports free expression of its customers and is committed to protecting user privacy, it complies with local laws and valid legal process.

However worldwide especially in China and India, it is observed that Internet companies have chosen to abide by domestic laws in order not to invite the rage of the local government and lose business.

Yahoo was criticized for helping the Chinese government to track down pro-democracy protestors. Yahoo's chief executive Jerry Yang has reportedly given evidence to the US Congress that his company helped in the arrest of a Chinese journalist. "To be doing business in China, or anywhere else in the world, we have to comply with local law," Yang has been quoted as saying.

In fact, in this context, observers say that Internet users should be aware of the limits of the medium as a public forum of expression, or they might end up doing something illegal, unknowingly.

Popular social networking websites frequently visited by millions of young Indians include Facebook, MySpace, Ibibo, BigAdda and Sulekha.

Experts pronounce that anonymity is not a cover that any online person should assume, especially known the harsh Indian laws that permit the police to arrest anyone and obliging Internet service providers (ISPs) willing to hand over Internet protocol addresses and other data.

During the interrogation by the police, Vaid alleged that he was unaware that he could end up in jail for posting material from the relative obscurity of his office computer.

Vaid's case trails back the unfortunate instance of another young Bangalore techie, Lakshmana Kailash. Last August Pune police arrested Kailash for posting insulting images of Chhatrapati Shivaji, a warrior king of Maharashtra, which resulted in the eruption of riots. As a result Kailash ended up spending over 12 weeks in jail.

Though it turned out, the information provided by ISP Airtel to the police in Pune was incorrect and Kailash was found to be innocent. Justifiably very angry, Kailash has decided to sue Airtel and the police.

A couple of years back the Gujarat police had arrested another young professional, Omar Farooque, in Delhi who had sent hate mail to Gujarat chief minister Narender Modi. However authorities realized timely that the said mail was not serious and released Omar.

In 2004, police arrested the chief executive officer of eBay India, Avnish Bajaj, when his website hosted a sex video of two Delhi-based school kids that was being sold online.

While the arrest of Bajaj raised a uproar for targeting the wrong person, security agencies have built a strong case for increased scrutiny of activities on mobile phones and the Internet, especially at cyber cafes.

Currently the Indian government and mobile service providers are embroiled in a tussle over third-party access to encrypted messages in BlackBerry cellular services. While security agencies insist that all cyber cafe owners should maintain a record of user identities.

Indian authorities, including the courts, are working hard to crack down on cyber crime, particularly cyber pornography and online break-ins of bank and credit card accounts, referred as "phising".

This year, a court in the southern Indian city of Chennai had given a life imprisonment to a surgeon in a case relating to pornography. The accused doctor had shot obscene pictures of his women patients and uploaded them on the Internet.

In another incidence, Mumbai police arrested a gang involved in "phising" at least 25 bank accounts and other credit card frauds. In the past the back-end employees based in India have short-changed the international online customers of multinational banks such as HSBC and Citibank.

New Delhi is also preparing a draft of new IT Act which will further strengthen cyber security norms, intellectual property protection and combat piracy. There is a strong need for this as India has been ranked third, after China and the US, in online frauds by the Anti-Phishing Working Group, a pan-industrial enforcement association that takes on e-fraud and identity theft. A survey was done by analysts in which it was highlighted that security and privacy are among the biggest fears among companies outsourcing business to India.

The business-returns are high, particular increased online commercial transactions that cover India's multi-billion dollar software and outsourcing sectors.

Software industry-body the National Association of Software and Service Companies (NAASCOM) is starting a nation-wide training program for police officers at specially constituted cyber labs. Over 5,000 officers have been trained to take on cyber crimes in major cities Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Pune. The program will be implemented in Delhi and Kolkata.

NAASCOM has also been approaching tech employees to sign up for the national skills registry to build an identity and profile database. So far 250,000 employees have been registered.

The main concern is the involvement of educated Indians, especially doctors, engineers and techies in back-end support for terror activities via networked computers.

In the past couple of years at least 10 highly educated Indian youth have been arrested for involvement in terror plots that have included the 2006 Mumbai train bombings and for a London terror plot and attack on Glasgow airport.

Software hub Bangalore has emerged as the favorite city for these unusual professionals for carrying out their operations given the large tech population in the city.

In fact there is a fine balance between managing the Internet as a free forum and at the same time keeping a check on the increasing misuse of the medium without snuffing it out.

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