Information — true, half-true or untrue — spreads like wildfire across social media networks and once out there, is beyond anyone's control. The gap between public and private space has blurred on social networks, writes Sudhish Kamath

“I love rumours! Facts can be so misleading, where rumours, true or false, are often revealing,” Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) gleefully said in “Inglourious Basterds”, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.

Quentin himself was the subject of a rumour that spread all around the world after a fan, Beejoli Shah, emailed pictures of them together and gave a detailed account of their one night of passion, taking the liberty to comment on his physicality and widely speculated sexual preferences. Beejoli sent it only to 15 of her friends over email but the next thing she knew, she lost her job. Beejoli may have sent it only to a select few, but the viral nature of social media did the rest.

Closer home in India, starlet Bhairavi Goswami put up a post on her Facebook page ranting about the hypocrisy of a superstar and his family's pretensions of wanting a boy-child. She accused the family of going to an IVF clinic in Thailand to ensure it was a boy. The starlet did not name the actor, but the viral nature of social media did the rest.

The most popular recent case, however, was when the Court asked Caravan magazine to remove an article that was considered defamatory by a B-school entrepreneur, who decided not only to sue the magazine but also Google for making that content available.

Viewing the court's order as stifling freedom of expression, activists on the Internet forwarded the article that was removed from the cache of Google. And the profile went on to get more hits than it would have ever got. Caravan didn't have to spread it but the viral nature of social media did the rest.

Facts and figures

A recent study by AC Nielsen estimates that India has over 9 million users on Twitter, with 25,000 people joining everyday and 25 million users on Facebook. With Google looking to bring all its Gmail users on to its own social network G+, news and unsubstantiated gossip will go viral faster than ever before with over 240 million mobile-phone users having access to the Internet.

As BBC presenter Nik Gowing observed during his talk on the viral nature of social media in the city, “No one can control the Internet.”

Information — true, half-true or untrue — spreads like wildfire across social media networks and once out there, is beyond anyone's control, including governments let alone individuals. The gap between public and private space has blurred as the two have merged on social networks that celebrities, institutions and governments are still coping to deal with mob-endorsed potentially defamatory content that's sometimes even not attributed.

So can you get into trouble for spreading information that is deemed defamatory once it goes beyond control and turns viral? Obviously, it all depends if the affected party wants to sue.

“In theory, any person who spreads false information hurting the reputation of a person could be guilty of defamation. But over and above that, the Information Technology Act, Section 66A, for instance, makes it an offence to send offensive messages through communication services,” PVS Giridhar, an advocate specialising in Information Technology methods, tells us.

However, there is a limitation to this liability specified under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act that comes to the rescue of the intermediary of such defamatory communication. “A search engine like Google can be an intermediary. Facebook or Twitter can be an intermediary.”

But being an intermediary is not always a get-out-of-jail card, he adds, citing the case of a portal that got into trouble when one of its users used the marketplace to sell an MMS clip with pornographic content.

“Section 79 lays down the limitation of liability in such cases which are comparable to the owner of a vehicle that's been caught with a consignment of drugs. If the owner can prove that he had no knowledge of his vehicle being used for illegal purposes, his liability is limited,” explains Giridhar.

But to be spared of legal action, the intermediary should prove that it had not initiated transmission of the defamatory subject matter, nor had it selected the receiver of the transmission, or had not modified the information contained in the transmission and that the intermediary's role was limited to providing access to the communication system, while observing due diligence in discharging its duties.

So Twitter or Facebook or Google may not get into trouble for providing the platform, but Beejoli, Bhairavi or anyone initiating scandalous transmission may still be treading on thin ice if the rumour/information spread is perceived as a conscious attempt to defame. And the fact that you cannot control what goes viral only makes it worse. Watch what you post. The Internet has a million ears.

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Sudhish KamathMay 11, 2012