Earlier this week Avnish Bajaj, CEO of Bazee.com -- India's ebay-owned leading online marketplace -- was arrested and yesterday denied bail . His offence: his website was allegedly used by an IIT Khargapur student (now suspended and in custody) to peddle pornographic material involving minors. Police are now investigating whether Bazee.com is directly culpable -- therefore have argued for continued detention of Mr. Bajaj.
Mr. Bajaj is an Indian-born American with links to ebay -- needless to say, his arrest has provoked even Ms. Condoleezza Rice to intervene, seeking his safety while in judicial custody.
Many are outraged by this arrest, calling it a witchhunt. They argue that Bazee.com was not party to these illegal transactions, and that it removed the offending content from its site as soon as it was made aware of it. While the latter may be true, we beg to strongly disagree that this is a witchhunt.
First, this is about child pornography -- not about offensive, if otherwise legal,.content. The State has a compelling interest is ensuring that such grievous offences against its citizens are not allowed to go on. All investigation pursuant to this interest are entirely legitimate.
Second, Bazee.com argues that it is merely a communication channel -- much like the telephone -- where third parties conduct business. These third parties are made aware of a code of conduct which specifically bars trade of illegal content. Any legal culpability, therefore, falls on these third parties -- not on Bazee.com.
In light of the compelling Napster rulings in the US, this argument is prima facie absurd. In Napster, it was ruled that the service, which enabled illegal copying of intellectual property on its servers, was itself liable -- even though it wasn't itself copying such material. Napster was subsequently shut down.
The Bazee.com case is much like Napster -- and not like, say, when China or France tries to blame Yahoo! for "objectionable" expression. Free speech is legal, at least, in India and the US, and one could make a political defense of it even in China and France. What possible defense can be made for child pornography?
Because this case appears to us more like Napster than Yahoo, we strongly feel Bazee.com is, at least, party to the case -- and cannot claim immunity merely because it was neither the buyer nor seller of the pornography.
We are also amused by the parallel's made by Bazee.com to the telephone or the mail system. We personally know something about internet businesses and marketplaces -- the central value proposition there has always been that these "new new things" are "game changing" in nature. Sceptics have been told that they don't "get it". Well, if so, and we agree this is so, then to fall back on lame comparison to telephone and mail does not befit the "new new crowd".
Finally, Avnish Bajaj is in judicial custody. Whether or not he would have sought "buzz" this way (likely not, but who knows -- this is what's being investigated), his portal has nevetheless derived enormous publicity from this kerfuffle -- and likely spikes in website traffic. All this "gain" would have come, even if inadvertently, on the back of an exploitative video clip of children -- of which Bazee.com has become an unlikely beneficiary. If Mr. Bajaj is to be detained for a few days so that India can do its job of ferreting out the truth, is it really so damaging? If we were him, we would be more concerned about devising ways to prevent future similar episodes through better monitoring of what transpires on his website, than trying to bring pressure from the US Government to safeguard his well-being. Let law take its own course -- we have argued this for Shankaracharya and we do again for Mr. Bajaj.
And while we are at it, we suggest that the US Government tread very carefully -- this is not a routine issue, afterall US has long shown profound concern about the global menace of child pornograhy, and here too that is the more central issue, not the few days of inconvenience for Mr. Bajaj. If US were to prefer Mr. Bajaj's well-being over the children damaged by this episode, its credibility on the issue will stand badly damaged.
Note: We don't know Mr. Bajaj, but read that he is a fellow IITan. At a personal level, we hope the investigation will reveal that he has done everything above board, that he is an honorable man horrified by how his website has been misused, and that he is committed to preventing similar horrors from ever being transacted on his website.
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