It appears that ITC has sued Suhel Seth over some tweets he posted which it alleges are defamatory: the Economic Times reports about two lawsuits – one in Bangalore and another in Kolkata, alleging defamation. Tweets, the report states, were specifically targeting ITC Chairman YC Deveshwar, some of which have apparently been removed. One tweet in particular states “Yogi Devesh will teach the insider trading course at Tihar School of Business’, while others allegedly suggest that he has had a “sterling track-record of avoiding retirement at all costs”. Update: Seth has apparently also tweeted that his account was hacked, which is perhaps the online equivalent of alleging that “this CD was doctored”.

What is defamatory is likely to be subject to the interpretation of a judge, but there are a few characteristics that define this hyperactive medium for commentary, albeit not specific to this case:

– Dual nature of the medium: While it is difficult to ascertain the motive behind these tweets, and a sustained campaign against an individual or a company will be difficult to defend, it also does point towards the dual nature of sites like Twitter and Facebook: they’re not just about free speech and having a conversation in public, but also about the fact that they are a publishing media. What is said (rather, written) on these sites gets broadcast, and people need to exercise caution while venting, to ensure that what they’re saying isn’t deemed defamatory in nature.

– Line between defamation and satire can blur: because it is subjective. You never know whether something that is satirical in nature will be deemed to be defamatory by courts

– Going with the flow: The impulsiveness of posting and the immediacy of the medium means that you can often get caught up in the buildup of a trending topic, and in the heat of the moment, say something that you might regret later.

– Lack of anonymity: websites are collecting massive amounts of data on each individual, and IP addresses can be located down to specific locations, sometimes PCs.

– Archives: while one can delete tweets and facebook posts, people should keep in mind that information once posted can at times be replicated across the web or archived and stored as a part of the cache. We’ve seen blog posts being removed by their authors, but they have no control over the cached content. People searching for it (we’ve done this) can take screenshots of the cache and publish it.

On Anonymity vs Identity

While Seth was identified, this also lends itself to the ever increasing debate on anonymity online: defamation and cybercrime is often cited as a reason for why people shouldn’t be allowed to remain anonymous, but my primary worry is that given that we have (mostly) static IP addresses and states and companies are gathering information on online access, you never know what will be used by whom and where. Google has your search history, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter have your network, and more importantly, many of these businesses have access to your emails. If you link identification with information, it can be used against you. States can go rogue on you.