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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Govt proposal to muzzle bloggers sparks outcry

by Atul Thakur, The Times of India

NEW DELHI: A government proposal seeking to police blogs has come in for severe criticism from legal experts and outraged the online community. The draft rules, drawn up by the government under the Information Technology Amendment Act, 2008, deal with due diligence to be observed by an intermediary.

Under the Act, an 'intermediary' is defined as any entity which on behalf of another receives, stores or transmits any electronic record. Hence, telecom networks, web-hosting and internet service providers, search engines, online payment and auction sites as well as cyber cafes are identified as intermediaries. The draft has strangely included bloggers in the category of intermediaries, setting off the online outcry.

Blogs are clubbed with network service providers as most of them facilitate comment and online discussion and preserve the traffic as an electronic record, but equating them with other intermediaries is like comparing apples with oranges, says Pavan Duggal, advocate in the Supreme Court and an eminent cyber law expert.

'This will curtail the freedom of expression of individual bloggers because as an intermediary they will become responsible for the readers' comments. It technically means that any comment or a reader-posted link on a blog which according to the government is threatening, abusive, objectionable, defamatory, vulgar, racial, among other omnibus categories, will now be considered as the legal responsibility of the blogger," he explains.

Even Google, the host of Blogger, among India's most popular blogging sites, expressed displeasure at the proposal. "Blogs are platforms that empower people to communicate with one another, and we don't believe that an internet middlemen should be held unreasonably liable for content posted by users," a spokesperson told TOI.

Blogs, which are typically maintained and updated by individuals, have showcased their political importance in recent times and the internet community views these rules as a lopsided attempt to curtail an individual's right to expression.

"If individual blogs are an intermediary, then why can't Facebook and Twitter also be classified as such, as they too receive, store and transmit electronic records and facilitate online discussions," retorts the spokesperson of the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), a Bangalore-based organization, which works on digital pluralism. "These rules will not only bring bloggers and the ISP provider on the same platform, but the due diligence clause will also result in higher power of censorship to the larger player. Imagine your ISP provider blocking your blog because it finds that certain user-comments fit these omnibus terms," the CIS spokesperson added.

Most experts, including Duggal, see these rules as the outcome of the government's one-size-fits-all approach — at least in regulating online activities — and ask for an amendment to the IT Act.

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