The Internet is no longer a remote phenomenon. In this election, almost all national parties have put up web sites so that people can log in from any part of the globe and see their message. Their ideology, manifestos and various positions are now all on-line. While the impact of such medium is still very limited — we have probably only about 50 to 70 thousand Internet users in India — the use of the net to propagate the views of political parties is going to be important in the future. It is in this context that we have to see how the Internet was used by the BJP, particularly as it has attempted to mask its Hindutva agenda.
One of the central features of the BJP web page was a Bulletin Board called the “Jana Sabha” where anybody could put up a message. An Internet Bulletin Board is the electronic equivalent of a physical Bulletin Board anywhere, with the difference that it can be accessed from anywhere in the world through the Internet. The web site claimed that this was totally uncensored. For about a month, this Bulletin Board became the focus of a vicious anti-minority and fascist campaign. There were protests in the media after the Bulletin Board was found to be involved in organising retaliations against Muslims in Coimbatore. Subsequent to these protests, the Jana Sabha claimed to be encountering technical difficulties, and the Bulletin Board was withdrawn, presumably because it was forced to discontinue its hate campaign.
The issue that I would like to address is how free the net is or should be. The BJP’s Bulletin Board was violating not only electoral laws — the blatant use of religion and open minority baiting — but also criminal law. Presumably, “organising retaliation” is nothing but a criminal conspiracy to riot. Can those who put up such Bulletin Boards take the plea that they are not responsible for the individual opinions of those posting messages? In other words, they are not responsible for other peoples opinions and do not want to act as a censoring authority. The issue is not a trivial one and is not restricted to BJP’s minority baiting on its Bulletin Board. This is the plea taken by a number of neo-nazi organisations in US and elsewhere, who run such Bulletin Boards. Even child pornography has been organised abroad using the Internet. The issue is further complicated by which country’s laws should apply to the Bulletin Board: where the Bulletin Board is hosted or where the people putting up the board reside. Further, are those hosting the Bulletin Board liable or only those who are posting messages? Or is the net to be regarded as a free uncensored domain in which there are no laws.
The key problem is that essentially the net cannot be policed by any external authority. It is very much like the telecommunications network in general. If people use the telephone system for committing a crime, we cannot start monitoring all telephone conversations in order to prevent crimes. Neither is it possible to set up a net authority to police whatever is being posted on the net — the net does not have a centralised controlling authority. However, this does not absolve the people using the net to be free from any legal liability if their acts on the net are illegal. Thus, people’s liability continues even if the net is free from any central authority.
While all this may appear complicated, the actual issues are simpler. Take for example the BJP Bulletin Board. The postings by various “readers” violated laws such as sowing “disaffection amongst communities”, election laws — use of religion during elections as they openly called on Hindus to vote for BJP — and finally criminal law as they asked for help in organising retaliation in Coimbatore. While the first law regarding sowing communal hatred has rarely been used in India against open minority baiting that VHP, BJP and other sister organisations of BJP indulge in, a call for organising riots falls into a different category. Presumably, even the police, soft as they are to BJP’s Hindutva, would find it difficult to ignore such messages put up on the internet. The issue is who is liable for such messages: the organisation running the Bulletin Board or the people putting up the messages. In this case, two organisations were involved in putting up the Bulletin Board — the BJP whose official site it was — as well as a commercial organisation, which is getting paid to run the Board and the site. What is the degree of liability of the two organisations? Obviously, anybody who puts up a hate message or posts criminal messages on the “Board” is liable in Indian law. However, some of these postings were from North America. If they are in US, whose laws should operate — Indian law or the US law?
The other complication that exists is that although both the BJP and the organisation managing the site are in India, the physical location of the Bulletin Board and the web site are in US. In other words, even if it is updated and maintained from India, the web site is on a computer in US. So if the web site violates laws in India, can it be made liable here if the occurrence of the crime is in US. Under US laws, putting up hate messages may not constitute a crime. Some have even argued that Bulletin Boards are private discussions and therefore not liable under law unlike other publications. These then are the issues of crime on the net: who polices the criminals if the net can not be policed and do some of the laws regarding publications apply to the net.
By now consensus is emerging on many of these issues. First, the location of the Bulletin Board. Irrespective of where it is put up, the cause of action in law must be from where the board is updated and maintained. Secondly, as Bulletin Boards are public — anybody can log in and see what is written, they cannot be regarded as private discussions. Discussions on the net have to be treated as public speech and be liable to the same laws that govern all publications. Third, though this is still legally contended in some of the countries, all those who are putting up such material are liable — not only those who post criminal messages but also those who maintain and “own” the Bulletin Boards. The last is a bit problematic as there are a large number of groups on the net that have Bulletin Boards that are virtually uncensored except that a moderator “looks in” from time to time to take off really offensive messages. Obviously, the moderator will have a far more onerous job if he or she has to continuously police the Bulletin Board. However, there is no escape from such responsibilities if you provide a public forum.
Coming back to the BJP. Was BJP really ignorant of the pitfalls of the net? Or was it a strategy of communicating the real agenda to their fascist base while Vajpayee puts on a public act of moderation? The reality behind the mask?