Inappropriate messages on social sites could get you arrested, fired, or even divorced.
3rd February, 2010

NEW DELHI: Imagine being thrown into jail for an innocuous Tweet. Or being sacked by your employer for an innocent status message. Worse, your wife files for divorce based on on what you put up on Facebook!

Social networking may be gaining traction across India, but the growing army of users riveted on microblogging websites such as Facebook and Twitter would do well to focus beyond privacy settings.

A humorous status message or an impromptu Tweet could get a person arrested,
fired, or even divorced by recent changes in the country’s IT laws, a development that seems to have gone unnoticed by most users bitten by the social networking bug.

Amendments to India’s IT Act, notified last October, make status messages and Tweets admissible as electronic evidence and the onus of the posts on these accounts now rests solely on users, say cyber lawyers.

“Messages on a social networking can be used as electronic evidence under the IT Act,” says lawyer Pavan Duggal, adding that posting a tweet or a status message online amounts to publishing in the public domain.

India has a teeming social networking population of about 35 million. Orkut dominates the spectrum with 15.5 million users, followed by Facebook at 10.3 million users, LinkedIn at 2.2 million users and Twitter at 1.4 million users, according to online audience measurement site Vizisense.

The extraordinary growth of social networking in India – the online population in this category is galloping at over 50% annually and almost 64% of all internet users here possess one account at least – is perhaps matched only by the dangers it poses, say cyber lawyers. “A printout or screenshot of a Twitter or Facebook post can be used in court proceedings,” says Mr Duggal. “It can be used by a spouse in a divorce case for instance.”

Or to pull off hoaxes. Veteran Marxist Jyoti Basu passed away on Twitter almost 48 hours before his actual death. Hollywood actor Johnny Depp is already dead if one is to believe last week’s Tweets.

But cruel intentions are never going to stem the growth of social networking, or Web 2.0 behaviour, say sociologists. “Human beings are generally gregarious. Since the shackles of family are breaking down, people want to express themeselves more often, even what they are thinking,” says Dipankar Gupta, professor of sociology at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “It is a compensatory mechanism for the non-existence of face-to-face communities. The phenomenon will increase.”

And most users seem to be blissfully unaware of the laws or dangers. The Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008 deals with the procedure and safeguards for interception, monitoring and decryption of information as well as blocking for access of information by public, among other rules.

Though the IT Act enacted in 2000 aimed to boost electronic-based transactions and e-governance, the government felt the need for tweaks after growing incidences of online crimes such as child pornography, terror and e-commerce frauds.

“I am not aware that a post on Facebook or Myspace is admissible under law,” says Divya Khosla, a Facebook user, though she knows that obscene material can be removed by approaching the site managers.

Some users, however, prefer moving court to waiting for the website to remove objectionable content. An airhostess approached the Delhi High Court against Orkut, when she discovered her photo and caption describing her as sex-starved.

The case, says Mr Duggal, is a rarity. And the woman could have moved court knowing little about the provisions about the law.

Indeed, as per the IT Act, it’s the user and not social networking sites that’ll be held liable for mischief. “Social networking sites hosting such content are not liable to penal action under the recent amendments to section 79 of the Indian IT Act,” says Mr Sood, the author of Cyber Laws Simplified.

Rishi Seth, who uses Twitter, is another networker ignorant about the changes in the IT laws or admissibility of tweets in a court. Mr Seth is unaware that logging in using a ‘private key’, which in this case is a password, is an electronic signature under the IT Act.

“Internet posts can also amount to defamation, when read with the laws on defamation,” says Vivek Sood, a Delhi based cyber lawyer, adding that these can be used as electronic evidence when IT Act is read along with provisions in the Indian Evidence Act.

Though users getting nabbed for posting fake or malicious messages are commonplace overseas, there has been only one case reported in India. A Gurgaon IT profesional was arrested in 2008 for posting an obscene message against Congress president Sonia Gandhi on his Orkut account.

Still, divorce lawyers in India, just as their foreign counterparts, are increasingly using electronic evidence. “Evidence on Orkut or Facebook is admissible in courts,” says Hasan Anzar of Delhi-based ANZ Lawyers, which specialises in divorce cases. “It’s better if a divorce applicant can retain the electronic images in their original form, or the source (like the memory card) of a camera can be shown alongside.”

UK-based Divorce-online last month said 20% of all its divorce petitions contain references to Facebook status messages.

Even the swathes of jobseekers are oblivious to HR managers prying on their accounts. As a recent survey of online jobsite CareerBuilder India shows, 73% of HR managers use social networking sites to research job candidates and about 42% employers said they rejected candidates after finding mischievous content. “Often the demand for profiling social networking behaviour comes from the client’s side only,” says Vikram Bhardwaj, CEO of executive search firm Redileon.