Google challenged in India By Raja Murthy Asia Times Online :: South Asia news, business and economy from India and Pakistan MUMBAI - The world's largest search engine is caught up in another Indian legal battle, one of many ongoing around the globe. A leading cardiologist from Mumbai is complaining to the city's High Court over 20 Google blogs he says defame him. The cardiologist's case is timely, raising important questions about freedom of expression in the Internet age, and Google's huge global presence. It has equally important implications for the curious phenomena of individual publishing on the Internet, such as blogs. The legal conflict revolves around freedom of expression becoming entangled with abuses of personal freedoms. In effect, it gives a 21st-century, online dimension to A G Gardiner's classic essay On the Rule of the Road, which spoke of the need for traffic lights, traffic policemen and speed limits. In the pre-World War II essay, a stout old Russian lady strides down the middle of a road in Petrograd. When told it would be safer to walk on the footpath, she retorts, "I'm going to walk where I like. We've got liberty now." It does not occur to the old lady, wrote Gardiner, that if her liberty entitled her to walk in the middle of the road, it also entitled the cab driver to drive on the footpath. In other words, the end result of too much individual freedom can be anarchy. Similar charges of anarchy can be applied to the content produced by the world's estimated 1.3 billion Internet users. Google leads the content flood, declaring itself to be "the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of information online - with more than 3 billion web pages, images and newsgroup messages". Google lawyers in many countries, including India, have consistently argued that it is impossible to regulate the mountains of content, and of the importance of privacy relating to individual freedoms. In the Mumbai case, Dr Ashwin Mehta, one of India's leading cardiologists, first complained against Google in 2008. He told the Mumbai court that the Google blogs had caused "incalculable harm and injury to his name, fame, standing and reputation". The blogs were removed following a Mumbai court order in 2008. But Google India filed an appeal against the order two months ago, saying that its blog-hosting company cannot constantly monitor everything posted on its blogs. The Mumbai High Court heard Google India's appeal on June 23, but refused to grant a stay on the earlier court order. The next hearing is to be held on July 7. Mehta's lawyer, Yatin Shah, told Asia Times Online that police were trying to track the anonymous blogger, as Google has refused to disclose their identity. It is not known whether India's courts will order Google to reveal the alleged defamer - who could have provided Google a fictitious name and address. "Freedom of expression cannot come without accountability," said Shah. "Here you have slander; lewd and vicious remarks published by an unnamed person against a surgeon who has operated on thousands of patients and is one of India's top taxpayers. If they are merely a third-party provider of content, then why can't Google give police the name and address of the blogger?" Google's lawyer, Iqbal Chhagla, has told the court that Google India is not responsible for defamation through Blogger, Google's blogging service, as Blogger's user agreement rests with the parent company in the United States. Essentially, Chhagla was trying to convince the court that individual limbs cannot be held responsible for any mischief by the body controlled by the head. Chhagla argued that unlike publishers in print media, the blogging service cannot control what is being posted all the time. But can Google and other media houses providing blogs and similar platforms be absolved from moderating content simply on the grounds of logistics? If I hold up a placard in Main Street and invite passersby to post material and read posts, can I claim freedom from any liability of the effects of the material expressed on the platform that I have provided? These are multi-dimensional questions that Asia Times Online readers could throw light on in ATol town halls such as The Edge. Under India's Internet laws, which have evolved from Section 79 of the Information Technology Act 2000, a company and its employees cannot escape responsibility for content posted on their websites, unless they can prove that the transgression happened despite efforts to prevent it. But an amendment to the law in December 2008 appears to let service providers off the hook. Clause 2(b) of the amendment says: "the intermediary will not be liable for content provided the intermediary does not (i) initiate the transmission, (ii) select the receiver of the transmission, and (iii) select or modify the information contained in the transmission." Mehta's lawyer Shah has said Google is still liable, as clause 3 (b) of the 2008 amendment says: "the intermediary will be held responsible for illegal content if it does not act immediately to remove such content after being informed about its existence". Mehta is not the first victim of online defamation and he won't be the last. The more pertinent question is whether Google can convince the court that it cannot be held responsible for content it carries, as it cannot monitor the estimated 2.5 million words per minute appearing in all of its blogs. But Google needs to serious consider these questions, or it could become the world's largest employer of lawyers as well as the world's largest search engine, given the frequency in which it is finding itself in the world's courts. Japan, the US, Britain, Belgium, Italy and India have in recent months yanked Google's ears over its various tools. There are claims that Google Street Views violates individual privacy, that Google News and Google Books steal intellectual property, that YouTube carries illegal videos, and now that Google blogs has been used to settle personal vendettas. "This is not the first such case I've fought against Google India," said Shah. "Two years ago, I filed a similar case over defamatory blogs against Google, in which the victim was a journalist, but nobody turned up to represent Google. This is the first time we have a detailed court ruling against such defamatory blogs, and the ruling cites laws in UK and Australia." In filing an appeal against the earlier Mumbai court order, Google seems to have drawn a comparison with a case in 2005 involving the Chinese journalist Shi Tao and Google rival Yahoo!. In that case the Chinese government asked the Yahoo! office in Hong Kong to identify him after he used his Yahoo! e-mail account to send a report on pro-democracy protests in China to the Chinese website of the Asia Democracy Foundation. Shi was arrested in December 2005 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Yahoo! was battered in a worldwide uproar of criticism. Google wants to avoid a similar fate, though it too has bent often to the Chinese government's orders. (See China creates an Internet albatross , Asia Times Online, June 30) But the Mehta case in India is not the same as the Yahoo! China case. If they were to pursue that course, Google's legal team would be drawing comparisons between a pro-democracy dissident in an authoritarian nation and a blogger in a parliamentary democracy, who accused a reputed professional of serious misdemeanors without any proof. Google has been criticized by Robert Menard, founder of the Paris-based non-governmental media watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Menard wrote to Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt and Sergey Brin, one of Google's founders, about a similar defamation lawsuit against Google India in February 2008. A Google blogger called Toxic Writer had posted a series of articles criticizing an infrastructure company Gremach. The company deemed the content defamatory and part of a "hate campaign". Bombay High Court ordered Google India in August 2008 to reveal the identity of the blogger. "We urge Google's executives not to comply with the local law and to appeal against the court's decision," said Reporters Without Borders. Menard's letter to Google's top brass mentioned the Yahoo! precedent in China. "You must be aware of the ensuing public relations disaster for Yahoo! and the apology that your counterpart and rival, Jerry Yang, had to give to the US Congress after it held him responsible for his client's imprisonment," the letter said. "Seize the opportunity you are being given to demonstrate transparency by defying the Indian court's request in the name of the international standards that protect free expression." Menard's letter added for good measure: "We remind you that article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, says: 'Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers'." Would Menard see this issue in the same light if he became a victim of malicious blogging? I am a sporadic Google blogger (publisher ID pub-5639295327936884), and have experienced how easy Google has made it for anyone to start a blog, and the amazingly detailed tools, guidelines and online help Google gives to develop and promote the blog. I felt quite giddy, and much impressed, after spending late nights wading through the elaborate labyrinth of layered, intricate information relating to Google tools such as "AdSense", "Analytics", "Website Optimizer", "Google Ad Manager", "Search Engine Optimization", and dozens of other aids for blog publishers. Though the fabulous riches that my short-lived blogs earned amounts to the grand sum total of US$0.05 cents - that Google promises to send to my bank when my blog traffic revenue touches $100, which isn't likely to happen anytime soon - testimonials from more hard-working bloggers claim daily revenues of $3,000 or more. For money or malice, it would take an ill-wisher of Menard about five minutes to start an anonymous Google blog and falsely claim that Menard, founder of Reporters Without Borders, was also the Paris chief of the Ku Klux Klan and was a local front-man for a Colombian drug cartel. Such a criminal anonymous blogger could then e-mail such ridiculous, defamatory postings to Menard's family, friends, colleagues, his dentist and the media to ensure they read the rubbish. Would Menard chuckle sportingly and say, "Ah, praise be to freedom of expression," or would he rush to the courts in Paris with smoke billowing out of his ears? Even if the French courts ordered Google to remove the blogs (and according to Menard's advice to Google head honchos, Google should defy local country laws), the identity of the blogger would have to be revealed for him to be stopped from restarting the anti-Menard blogs with another fake blogger identity. Menard would then experience the long-term damage that victims of malicious slandering suffer, on blogs or elsewhere. Even if the offensive anti-Menard blogs were removed, the damage to his reputation would already have been done. Which is why Menard  and Reporters Without Borders run into difficulties by suggesting that freedom of expression should come sans accountability, particularly the need to prove that serious allegations against any individual or entity are based on fact. Failure to strike a balance between freedoms and abuses of freedom will inevitably lead to chaos on the road. "It's just as well to remind ourselves what the rule of the road means," wrote Gardiner in his essay. "It means that in order that the liberties of all may be preserved, the liberties of all may be curtailed." Blogger and similar publishing freedoms come with the same traffic rules that do not allow the pedestrian to walk in the middle of the road, claiming freedom to walk wherever they please, or allow the car driver to hurtle down the pedestrian path, claiming the freedom to drive where they want to. The issue is urgent. Google's Schmidt says that over 70 million blogs exist and over 120,000 blogs are being created every day. "More than half of these blogs are created by people less than 18 years old," Schmidt said at a health-care conference in Chicago in 2008, indicating the kind of blog boom we can expect in the near future, and also the volume of less mature content. Besides English, Google also enables blogs in French, Italian, German, Spanish, Korean, Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch, Russian, Japanese, Swedish, Malay, Polish, Thai, Indonesian, Tagalog, Turkish, Vietnamese and other languages. "Unfortunately, we don't have the blogger metrics broken down by country," Caroline Hsu, head of communications for Google Taiwan and Hong Kong, told Asia Times Online. "Blogger is the leading blogging product in the world, with hundreds of millions of page views. Blogger has millions of users worldwide." These "millions of users" enrich our knowledge and insights into life more than any other time in human history. But some foolish cowards among them, as Mehta alleged to the Mumbai High Court, can also destroy lives. Anonymity and privacy are essential parts of the choices of individual freedom, but they obviously cannot be criminally misused with or without direct connivance of global media giants. The core issue is better safety on Internet highways, and to ensure it Google and other leaders in the Blogging age should consider Gardiner's On the Rule of the Road. "Liberty is not a personal affair only," he wrote. "It's a social contract. It is an accommodation of interests."