Sucheta Dalal :Dealing with the death of privacy
Sucheta Dalal

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Dealing with the death of privacy  

Feb 5, 2007

For A long time now, it has been a popular belief that the Internet offers people extraordinary and unbridled freedom to have their say. Most of the time this freedom opens up a magical world of information, thought and opinion embellished with the graphics, music or video. This is a world that all of us will want to fight to protect from the ham-handed encroachment of rigid legislation or mindless bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, the Net too has its sleazy underbelly of a small minority of blogs and websites that spew venom at people and their beliefs; or use its easy accessibility for impersonation, slander and mischief. These anonymous attackers only need some basic technology savvy to cover their tracks and avoid detection.

So far, large search sites and portals such as Google, Yahoo! and others have steadfastly guarded this limitless freedom of expression by refusing to block hate sites or hear complaints about defamation or slander. But, as was bound to happen, victims of the most vicious blogger attacks are testing the limits of this freedom in law courts around the world.

In Mumbai, the Bombay High Court has responded to a suit by journalist Gurbir Singh, by restraining Google from publishing defamatory content on three blogs — mediamalice, mediamamu and indiamediareview. The High Court has also asked Google to provide information on the names and addresses of the blog owners.

The court order is not as positive as it appears, because Google, with its vast global footprint and headquarters in the US has not responded as yet. However, Google’s India office has already been attacked once in the past few months for content denigrating Shivaji that was published on a networking community called Orkut. The community was blocked after a complaint. Moreover, there have been instances when Google has lifted the veil of anonymity and revealed specific details under pressure from the Chinese government.

Will one journalist’s lawsuit cause Google to do the same in India? It is an issue that will be watched carefully in the coming months. So far, Google has not had to turn up in court or spend any money defending itself. But if the issue is escalated far enough to put pressure on its Indian operations, will the likelihood of losing business induce it to reconsider its policy? It is a fact that Google does not endorse, verify, monitor or take responsibility for what is posted on its blogs or networking forums; but it also ends up protecting those who post hateful, fake or slanderous content by refusing to reveal their identity which would force them to face up to the consequences of their actions.

What it offers to do on receiving a complaint is to monitor the blog and initiate action under its own policies. This is cold comfort for anyone whose reputation has been mauled by anonymous bloggers. Meanwhile, the possibility of a loss of anonymity has taken some of the malice out of the merry media bloggers and they have now restricted access to invitees.

Impersonation and identity theft is another aspect of the Internet’s sleazy underbelly and most Net based companies offer similar protection to those who misuse their free email services. A few months ago, R. Williams, a lawyer for Kanbay, wrote to warn that someone was impersonating me. The person had created an email ID in my name and written to Kanbay threatening to expose certain scams in the BPO sector. A complaint filed with the cyber crime police led to the IP address being traced to several cyber cafes in Pune, where Kanbay’s Indian operations are located. In my case, the lawyer detected the impersonation, only because he noticed that my email ID attached to this column is different from the one created by the impersonator. He decided to write to me and find out if I had indeed emailed Kanbay. My own experience is that the impersonator may get away with his dirty trick unless he forgets to cover his tracks the next time.

Another area of anger and concern is the unsupervised access to meeting places on the Net. Truman Lewis of says, “as law suits and legal challenges pile up, Ruper Murdoch’s Myspace is rushing to install a tool that lets parents keep track of what their kids are up to on the popular social networking site.” The lawsuits are from families who say that their underage daughters were solicited online and sexually abused by adult Myspace users. Lewis also reports that Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has organised a coalition of 33 American states to press for better security measures on the site. They are demanding effective age verification tools to be installed by the site.

While age verification “using publicly available data” is easy in the US, it is not so in India, where Myspace is just as popular; in fact, many parents are unaware about explicit material posted on these sites or that their children may be getting friendly with dubious characters. So far, Myspace has come up with a tool that allows parents to spy on their children and check the age claimed on their Net profiles. But if people fall in love and get married on the Internet, they can also be lured and exploited through the same medium. This is a reality that most people are reluctantly learning to accept.

The biggest worry is that almost nothing need be a secret anymore. Journalists, for instance, are used to sources dictating what information they provide must remain off-the-record. Today, even a stray comment at a cocktail party could end up on a blog and be broadcast to the world. It is the end of privacy as we knew it, and it is not a happy feeling.

-- Sucheta Dalal