Update: this story was first reported by TwoCircles.
Update: 99Acres has outlined the steps it is taking to prevent discriminatory real estate listings:
1. Automated filter: It has introduced a software-based filter that will flag listing automatically for review if it carries the name of any religion, caste or community.
2. Notice to consumers: The 99acres home page now carries the following message – “Usage of 99acres.com to upload content which enables inappropriate targeting by religion/community/caste/race is prohibited. Please report inappropriate content by writing to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
3. Flagging and reporting system: In addition there is also a prominent button on every listing page to report inappropriate content. Most people will report inappropriate content from the listing page where they see the content
All in all, the perfect way of addressing the situation, without going overboard with moderation: automated filtering means that it is not knowingly allowing upload of discriminatory listings, and hence is likely to not be held liable. The flagging and reporting system allows for crowdsourced moderation.
Earlier (November 8): Info Edge owned real estate portal 99 acres found itself caught in a controversy yesterday, after a broker posted a listing for a flat on its website with ‘no Muslims’ as a feature of the housing society. Update: the story was first reported by TwoCircles.
The listing, which read “Excellent brand new 2BHK fully furnished flat with cross ventilation, natural light. Cosmopolitan society, no Muslims, with car parking on immediate sale, fifth floor interested please call”, went viral on social media, and attracted attention for being offensive and discriminatory. It was modified on 2nd November, but according to FirstPost, social activist Shehzad Poonawalla filed a petition with the National Commission for Minorities seeking action against the broker and 99acres.com.
Info Edge founder Sanjeev Bikhchandani has since issued a statement about the listing, saying that the company removes listings when they are reported to them, and are deemed offensive and discriminatory. He further adds that 99Acres will “continue to take all reasonable steps to moderate such postings in the future”, and they are “in the process of putting in place more rigorous checks and processes to prevent the recurrence of such listings.”
99Acres says that is has over 400,000 classifieds listings at any given point in time, directly uploaded by advertisers on the website, and that this is user generated content.
Should 99Acres Have Moderation?
These listings are similar to user comments, and it is virtually impossible for any online intermediary, which is merely a conduit to a user sharing information online, to monitor and moderate content before it goes up. However, the site can set up a process by virtue of which certain keywords, when included in a post, are flagged, following which listings go into a moderation cue.
The IT Rules (however regressive) ensure* that if 99Acres does not edit, modify or moderate the listings before they are put up, as a mere intermediary, they will be held liable only if they refuse to remove the content within 36 hours of it being reported.
However, our view* is that if 99Acres actually sets up a moderation process for listings, they will be held liable for any listing that goes up. As per the IT Rules, it should not “knowingly host or publish any information or shall not initiate the transmission, select the receiver of transmission, and select or modify the information contained in the transmission as specified in sub-rule (2)”. If they set up a moderation process, then any listing will be “knowingly hosted”, thus making 99Acres liable as an intermediary.
What kind of listings will they be liable for? Sub-sule (2) lists the reasons, and they’re so vague that any online content can be removed:
(a) belongs to another person and to which the user does not have any right to;
(b) is grossly harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libellous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever;
(c) harm minors in any way;
(d) infringes any patent, trademark, copyright or other proprietary rights;
(e) violates any law for the time being in force;
(f) deceives or misleads the addressee about the origin of such messages or communicates any information which is grossly offensive or menacing in nature;
(g) impersonate another person;
(h) contains software viruses or any other computer code, files or programs designed to interrupt, destroy or limit the functionality of any computer resource
This rule, especially phrases in bold above, are open to interpretation, which is what makes the IT Rules so dangerous. Pranesh Prakash of CIS suggests the listing itself isn’t illegal, but under the IT Rules, it does appear to be removable:
@sidin Currently the law does not make it illegal. SC has upheld such practices under freedom of association in tge Zorastrian Housing case.
— Pranesh Prakash (@pranesh_prakash) November 7, 2013
This is one of the key issues we’ve raised about the IT Rules being prone to abuse, and the possibility of their use to stifle criticism and free speech. Something might be distasteful, discriminatory and offensive, but not necessarily illegal.
Our opinion is that if 99Acres does not institute moderation, it will not be liable under the IT Rules*. If it has moderation, then it would be liable for something that a user might find ‘grossly harmful’, ‘disparaging’, or ‘racially, ethnically objectionable’.
Download a copy of the IT Rules here. The rules specific to online intermediaries are on page 11.
*Note: What is stated above is our opinion, and not that of a lawyer. Please check with a lawyer before taking a decision.