Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Google says don’t shoot the messenger

Google Inc. is agitated that the Indian government may retain a provision in its Information Technology Act., that makes intermediaries such as ISPs (Internet Service Providers), website hosting companies, search engines, email services, social networks liable for illegal user content. See here the comments from a policy analyst at Google India.

Google has reasons to be worried about “intermediary liability”. Recently a cantankerous political party in Mumbai, called the Shiv Sena, demanded that Google’s social networking site, Orkut, should be banned in India, and prosecuted, after some users posted content considered defamatory of the party’s leader.

There is a precedent of sorts for that. In 2004, Avnish Bajaj, the then CEO of eBay’s Indian subsidiary was arrested in connection with the sale of a pornographic video clip on the online auction portal. Bajaj was arrested under the provisions of the Information Technology Act relating to intermediary liability.

I agree that intermediaries should not be held responsible for illegal content. Google’s policy analyst, Rishi Jaitly, says a telephone company is not held responsible if two people use a telephone call to plan a crime.

The argument about the telephone is specious and does not recognize that the times have changed. The content of a phone call between two housewives slandering somebody remains between the two, or if it spreads it will be a few persons at a time.

In contrast, because of the viral nature of content on the Internet, if somebody takes a young girl’s naked picture, using a spy camera, or he takes her face shot and adds someone else’s naked body to it, that picture will be all over the world in seconds.

By the time the aggrieved person discovers that it has happened, and reports it to Google, and then Google goes through its internal procedures to decide whether the content should be brought down or not, that picture will be all over the Internet, and the young lady’s honor and privacy in shambles.

Folks like Google and other Internet service providers have been pushing social networking and online communities without coming up with appropriate ways to counter misuse of these large-scale communication platforms. “It would be technologically infeasible for ISPs and web companies to pre-screen each and every bit of content being uploaded onto our platforms, especially as the amount of information coming online increases exponentially in India and around the world,” says the Google policy analyst.

Fair enough, but what this means is that technology innovation and new applications like social networking, touted as part of the brave new Web 2.0, have thrown up new problems. Like Google and a lot of other people, Indian Parliament's Standing Committee on Information Technology is also fumbling in search of a solution. Don’t blame them. Work with them, because as government they are more concerned about the individual. Perhaps the government worries that if intermediaries are not at all held liable for content, they may be more inclined to turn a blind eye to such content.

Instead Google decides to harangue the government with its self-serving view on Internet freedom and economic development. “More importantly, imposing such a burdensome standard (of intermediary liability) would crush innovation, throttle Indian competitiveness, and prevent entrepreneurs from deploying new services in the first place, a truly unfortunate outcome for the growth of the Internet in India,” says the Google policy analyst.

Internet growth is not the topmost priority for all people. More important to most of them is protecting their modesty and privacy, and that of their children.

Related article:

Internet reflects, nay amplifies social problems

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