Update: Following a Transfer Petition before the Supreme Court of India by The Caravan Magazine, asking for the suit to be transferred from Silchar to Delhi High Court on the grounds that, except for one party to the suit, all other parties are based in or around Delhi, the Supreme Court has stayed the proceedings in Silchar while it considers the transfer of the case to Delhi. More here.

June 23, 2011: The Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM), a New Delhi headquartered business school, has filed a lawsuit against The Caravan, Google, and Penguin Publishing at the Court of Civil Judge in Silchar district, in Assam, reports First Post. The institute has cited “grave harassment and injury”, following an article in Caravan Magazine titled “Sweet Smell of Success: How Arindam Chaudhuri Made a Fortune Off the Aspirations – and Insecurities – of India’s Middle Classes”, written by Siddhartha Deb, a contributing editor at The Caravan. Penguin is the publisher of the upcoming book by Deb in which the article is a chapter, and Google India, the suit alleges, has been “publishing, distributing, giving coverage, circulating, blogging the defamatory, libelous and slanderous articles”.  IIPM has previously sued JAM Magazine Publisher Rashmi Bansal and Maheshwar Peri’s Careers360 Magazine, and according to a statement from The Caravan, both cases were also filed in Silchar, which it says is 300 km from Guwahati, Assam’s capital. The Caravan and IIPM both operate from Delhi. The Caravan states that it will fight this suit, believing that it needs to defend the rights of journalists to report on controversial topics. Read its statement here.

Social Media Will Test IIPM

The article in question has been removed from The Caravan’s website, following a preliminary ex-parte injunction granted by the civil court in Silchar, but we have noticed that copies of the article have been published on blogs. A sample here.

This reminds me of the famous Ryan Giggs Super Injunction Case in the UK, where the Manchester United footballer had been granted a Super Injunction, preventing news publications from reporting on his alleged extra-marital affair: while the debate on muzzling the press raged on for days, eventually, the name leaked on Twitter and spread across the site. With millions tweeting that information, the injunction became redundant, even though news publications were still barred from reporting it.

The situation made to a head eventually when a UK Member of Parliament John Hemming, protected by Parliamentary privilege, named Giggs in the UK Parliament. The press reported on his statement, thus making the Super Injunction redundant. But keep in mind, the injunction had already been made redundant by Twitter.

If nothing else, suing these companies could work against IIPM. The news came to light yesterday, when Caravan issued a press release, and since then, the institute and its dean have been criticised and ridiculed on Twitter. Now if The Caravan article gets replicated across the web, in blogs, on forums, and it gets “tweeted” and “facebooked”, how many people will IIPM sue for sharing (distributing) the article, or for criticizing it?

Why Google?

It’s strange that IIPM should sue Google for “publishing, distributing, giving coverage, circulating, blogging the defamatory, libelous and slanderous articles”. Technically, Google doesn’t publish, distribute or blog articles. Its users do. In legal-speak, Google is what is defined as an “intermediary”: it doesn’t have control over the activities of its users, and is not actively involved. It follows a mechanism to take down content when complaints are filed. Even as a search engine, wherein it might provides links to articles criticizing IIPM as search results – and this may amount to “providing coverage” – it remains an intermediary. In an emailed reply to MediaNama, a Google spokesperson has said:

“Search engines are a reflection of the content and information that is available on the Internet. We are disappointed that search engines that use computer algorithms to create automated indexes of the world wide web, are sought to be held liable for content that is indexed as search results. We are examining all options and at this stage would not like to comment on a matter that is sub-judice.”

The new IT Rules, as flawed as they are, could grant Google protection against IIPM. However, Google will be liable if IIPM asks Google to remove specific search results by claiming these are “grossly harmful” or “harassing”. Even if Google does censor certain queries, it will become impossible for it to censor all comments, however grossly harmful or harassing. This is where the IT Rules fail.

Meanwhile, IIPM advertisements continue on Google: screenshot