Monday, December 4, 2000. 2:00 a.m. PST

Manu Joseph

Porn a Thorn for Indian Portal

MUMBAI, India — In a court order that could have serious legal ramifications in India, a judge in Pune has put six directors of a premier portal called Rediff.com on trial for "giving access to pornographic material."

If convicted, the directors face up to two years imprisonment.

The chairman of the portal, Ajit Balakrishnan — a high profile business figure in India — is among those summoned for a Dec. 30 hearing. A high-level Intel executive, Tony Janz, was also summoned.

Legal experts here were surprised that the judge called the hearing at all, especially after an investigation ordered by the judge appeared to vindicate Rediff.

When attorney Rohan Nagpal filed the pornography complaint against Rediff two months ago — on behalf of a law student Abhinav Bhatt — the general opinion was that the judge would throw the case out.

Nagpal's complaint said that Rediff's search engine gave free and easy access to pornographic material. Following the complaint, Judge S. Bhosle ordered a police inquiry.

The police report stated that the portal's search engine didn't create any objectionable material, and that it was in the character of a search engine to give access to everything on the Web.

But the judge didn't think that was enough, at this point, to absolve Rediff of blame.

"Considering the allegation that the accused company is advertising their search engine facility and thereby provoking the citizen to view their website, I am of the opinion that enough material is available on which the accused can be put up for trial," Bhosle said.

Nagpal's complaint argues that if another Indian site, 123india.com, could filter out all sex-related material, Rediff can, too.

"To this," Nagpal said, "Rediff claimed that 123india.com was a directory and that Rediff used a search engine. But their contention was weakened when I showed a precedence.

"In 1998, Compuserve's managing director was sentenced to two years imprisonment for giving access to sites that dealt with child pornography. He went on appeal, but the point is that after the suit was filed, Compuserve's search engine effectively blocked out all objectionable sites. So Rediff's claim that filtering a search engine is technically not feasible is not true."

Dhruv Sharma, CEO of 123india, had said that the difference between a directory and a search engine was merely "semantics," and that if only Rediff had taken as much care as his portal had, they would not have gotten into this mess.

After the unexpected order of the Pune judge, Sharma said, "We are watching all this carefully. We have more than a casual interest in the outcome of this case. It can have some serious bearing on the way Indians use the Internet."

Rediff's legal counsel, S. Balram, didn't want to comment at this stage. But Rediff chief of corporate communications, Debashish Gosh, said, "We are looking at the relevant documents right now and have not yet decided on the future course of action."

Negpal replied that however carefully Rediff's legal department may read the documents, "it's binding under the Indian law for the accused directors to appear in court for the hearing."

This effectively signals a rather nervous end-of-the-year for Rediff, which is listed on the Nasdaq.

"Such news have some bearing on the Nasdaq, but Rediff has been built on long-term investors," said a high-level Rediff employee speaking under condition of anonymity. "We are in hyper growth right now and such cases only have irritation value."

He added that he was optimistic about the outcome of the trial because he maintained, "Even God cannot alter the way a search engine works. Either you ban Indian sites from using search engines, which is a ridiculous idea, or you live with the fact that any Indian user will be able to access porn sites.

"Even if you employ a severe, drastic filter in your search engine, it will be a useless tool in three months because new porn sites will come up and your filter will not detect them."

The police team that investigated the matter brought a video camera to some cyber-cafes in Pune. They videotaped some users accessing pornographic material using Rediff's search engine.

It's not just Rediff who is being pressured. Satyam Infoways, also listed on the Nasdaq, has been issued a similar order by the judge.

This Indian initiative comes on the heels of a landmark ruling against Yahoo by a French court for giving access to sites that auctioned Nazi memorabilia.

Judge Jean-Jacques Gomez ordered Yahoo to block the sites and to pay $1,390 each to the Union of Jewish Students and to an anti-racism group.

Yahoo, like Rediff, had argued that it cannot be held responsible for giving access to objectionable sites. But what might come as some consolation to Rediff's directors is that Compuserve's director, who was charged with giving access to child pornography, eventually did not go to jail.

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Created: December 18, 2000
Last modified: December 18, 2000
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