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Govt 'can't track' Net culprits

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By Our Legal Correspondent
  • Published 22.01.15
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New Delhi, Jan. 21: The Centre today admitted in the Supreme Court that it cannot track down people uploading objectionable content on the Internet, because anyone sitting anywhere in the world can host material on a website in India.

The government said it can at best block the sites hosting such objectionable content.

The Centre's admission comes in the backdrop of the Internet being widely used by militant groups and their sympathisers to post propaganda material.

Bangalore youth Mehdi Masroor Biswas, who allegedly operated a pro-IS Twitter account, Sami Witness, for several years using hidden servers in foreign countries, was last month arrested by Karnataka police after his cover was blown by a British publication.

The government is making efforts to enter into "multi legal assistance treaties" with other countries to curb the menace, the court was informed today.

"We can only block the contents on the site. Otherwise it is not possible to identify the source from which it originates as they are all anonymous, virtual and borderless," the director-general of information technology & computer emergency response team told a bench of Justices J. Chelameshwar and Rohinton F. Nariman.

The admission by the top-ranking official of the Centre's IT wing prompted Justice Chelameshwar to ask: "When you can't track down those people, then what is the point in having all these rules (IT Act)?"

However, Rai and additional solicitor general Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, said the only thing the government can do at this stage was to enter into bilateral treaties with other countries to help identify persons posting objectionable material.

Rai told the court that a person sitting in the US, Russia or any other country can upload objectionable material even on an Indian website or a website viewed in India to give an impression that it was hosted in India although it might have originated elsewhere.

In computer language, this is termed "onion layer" as there are several layers of hidden servers and virtual private networks through which such material is uploaded clandestinely to avoid detection, he said. The official offered to demonstrate the same in the court, but the bench said it would consider the offer at a later stage.

The apex court is hearing a bunch of petitions and applications filed by individuals and organisations challenging various provisions of the Information and Technology Act, particularly Section 66A, which can lead to indiscriminate arrests of individuals hosting any perceived objectionable material.

Earlier, senior counsel Shyam Divan, appearing for the website mouthshut.com, said punitive action cannot be taken against websites because they are merely hosting the site and have no technology to identify the source. He said any punitive measure against such site would be violation of Articles 19 (1) (a) (free speech) and 19(1)(g) (fundamental right to carry out any profession). "Otherwise it will have an impact, affect my business, quality of debate and constrict the nature of debate."

However, the bench said the website can claim a right under Article 19(1)(g) but not under 19(1)(a) which is subject to reasonable restrictions.

The arguments will resume next week.