Google takes the rap in India

Posted in India | 18-Oct-06 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

NEW DELHI - Even as the Internet continues to grow at a fast pace in India, new controversies abound. Search engine Google has been in the thick of such matters worldwide. Another chapter has been added to its India essay.

The High Court in the state of Maharashtra has issued a notice to Google India and the state government for hosting an anti-India campaign on one its social networking sites, Orkut. The move came after a petition was filed under India's Information Technology Act 2000 (IT Act), asking the court to direct Orkut to remove the community "We Hate India", which has a picture of the burning of the Indian flag, besides other anti-India propaganda. The petition also appealed to the government to appoint a controller to regulate such communities.

The community, set up by a Russian, Miraslov Stankovic, states that it is against everyone who is against Pakistan and is about having a group of people who "hate' India because of its oppressive and hostile approach. The number of members of the community itself has ranged from 90-100.

Defending its position, a Google spokesperson has said: "Orkut is not based in India. It's an open community. However, as its owner, we govern the community with our terms of service, which strictly prohibit "hate speech' and "violence' among other things. Orkut is a community of "trusted' users since only those who are invited can join it. Besides, it has standards and tools whereby users can report news as bogus. We also heavily rely on users to report such acts. In this case, Google will review and take appropriate action [removal in this case]."

It's not the first time the website has faced such trouble. In August, a judge in Brazil asked Google to release information needed to identify individuals accused of using Orkut to spread child pornography and engage in hate speech against various groups. Google filed a brief in court explaining why it could not comply with the judge's order.

Orkut is an online community launched two years ago that connects people through a network of friends and is one of the most popular social networking sites in India. An audit of Orkut users in August ranked India's user base as the third-largest in the world, behind Brazil and the US.

Interestingly, the site, which has distinct interest groups, has President A P J Abdul Kalam as the most popular Indian leader, over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi.

Controversy erupted in India earlier as well regarding material posted on the Internet. In 2004-5, a sexually explicit video clip of two students of a prominent private school shot on a mobile phone, found its way into cyber space.

The MMS clip (multimedia messaging service, referring to the mobile technology to transmit the video) was being auctioned on popular website and recording brisk sales. A country head of the website and a student of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) who had posted the clip for sale on the site were arrested in this connection.

According to Section 67 of the IT Act, transmission of obscene material through electronic media can invite a jail term for up to five years, though the arrest of the India head of eBay was compared to jailing a minister (Rail, for instance) for an accident that can happen anywhere in the country.

Like the rest of the world, India has also had its share of brouhaha against Google Earth, the satellite imagery and geographic information service. Though Google Earth applications in collaboration with the National Geographic are a technological marvel, it is not so for authorities concerned with national security. Fears, even if unfounded, have been expressed that the many pictures complete with three-dimensional close-ups and precise location codes, can be used by terrorists to plot their moves

Cyber space has been a forum of Indo-Pak expressions for some time. For many in India, the Internet is one abiding indicator of the way India and Pakistan relations are progressing. For the initial part of the history of virtual interactions between the two neighbors (since e-space gained prominence in the late 1990s) netizens have been gunning for each other. They take the form of spamming, abusive graffiti, hacking key sites as well as defacing others. For example, during the height of the Kargil conflict in 1999, hate mail from India inundated then prime minister Nawaz Sharif's official email.

On the other hand, when Indo-Pak bonhomie reached a peak in January 2004, when President General Pervez Musharraf met prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to launch the peace process, the newfound love even passed the ultimate barometer of truth - on the sub-continent, it is either war or cricket.

Subsequent to the meeting, the Indian cricket team embarked on a historic month-long tour to Pakistan, the first in 14 years. Though emotions reach maniacal proportions during such a contest, chat sites were surprisingly inundated with peace messages. Topics of discussions included prospects of a joint Indo-Pak cricket team, a possible Noble Peace prize for Vajpayee and Musharraf, travel prospects with restrictions removed, business, cuisine and weather.

Indeed, even as the Internet burgeons worldwide, means have to be found to check abusers of the medium, without curtailing the creativity as well as utility as a powerful communication and information source.

The Indian government is trying to learn the ropes. Following international protests, the federal cabinet this week approved amendments to the IT Act to check information theft and online fraud. The new provisions include greater emphasis on digital signatures, new security practices and procedures for e-governance and other technology applications.

There is no doubt that the Internet has come of age in India. The number of Internet users reached 37 million in September, up from 33 million in March. During the same period, the number of "active users" has risen from 21 million in March to 25 million in September. The National Association of Software Companies (Nakasone), India's software lobby, estimates that the number will cross 100 million by 2010, mostly driven by people under the age of 35.

In 2005-6, major online shopping sites such as Fatally, Redid, India Times and Shifty have seen Indian consumers spend US$242 million on their websites. This is just small slice of the retail market in India, but it's more than double the outcomes earned via Indian e-shoppers in 2004-05.

On an average day on eBay India, a piece of jewelry sells every seven minutes, a mobile handset every nine minutes; apparel sells every 12 minutes, and MP3 players every 18 minutes. People also buy books every 24 minutes and a musical instrument every six hours.

A slew of Internet travel firms, such as Maestri, Antra, Travel Guru and Clear Trip are doing brisk business. The total online travel market is expected to cross $550 million next year, with online travel increasing its share to 24%, air-ticket penetration touching 23% and online rail tickets doing brisk business.

The courts and the government have to be careful to maintain the fine balance between being heavy-handed and allowing leeway to mischief-mongers.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist.