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Bite In The Blog Bark

A B-school vs bloggers. The war has raised a flurry of questions — are blogs personal diaries in the public domain or can they be legislated?

Bite In The Blog Bark
Bite In The Blog Bark

It was just another blog. In June this year, a Mumbai-based youth magazine, JAM, carried a piece demolishing the tall claims made by a Delhi-based B-School, IIPM (Indian Institute of Planning and Management). The magazine's editor, Rashmi Bansal, wrote a one-liner on her personal blog asking people to read the story. And then, all hell broke loose. There was mayhem in cyberspace. For those numerous surfers, it turned out to be a typical David vs Goliath story. An unknown Bansal fighting a B-School owned by powerful promoters who have dabbled in Bollywood and media.

Bansal was slapped a 'legal' notice over e-mail by IIPM (summons are issued by courts or authorities created by statute, which IIPM certainly isn't) demanding Rs 25 crore for the presumed loss of goodwill. Nasty messages were posted on Bansal's personal blog, threatening her with dire consequences in case she pursued with her campaign. The JAM article had stated that an IIPM degree was not recognised, the placements it was claiming for its students in firms like HLL and McKinsey hadn't happened and IIPM was fudging data about rankings it had received in various B-School surveys (including ones conducted by Outlook).

At least one IIM graduate, Gaurav Sabnis, a 25-year-old IBM India employee and an active blogger, lost his job because he posted his reactions and a link to the JAM's piece on his web page. An outraged IIPM sent a Rs 125-crore legal notice to Sabnis. But more than that, the institute forced IBM to take action against Sabnis by threatening to burn some 150 new IBM laptops in front of its office if the company did not force Sabnis to remove the contentious information from his blog.

Taking the high moral ground, and defending his right to free speech, Sabnis chucked up his job. He claimed there was no pressure from IBM, but he resigned to spare the company a public-relations embarrassment. "The first thing that is dear to me is my freedom of speech. The second thing dear to me is IBM's well-being. IBM has been a good employer," he says. Critics contend that he quit because he got a fellowship which timed well with the blogger's campaign against IIPM.

Overnight, the blog battle became a global event. Apparently, luminaries like Noam Chomsky, Sri Sri Ravishankar, and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer praised IIPM. Surprisingly, these reactions vanished within days of being posted on the web. Critics feel the quotes may have been "manufactured".

CURIOUSGAWKER.blogspot.com has this to say, "This daisychain of institutes exist ambiguously on the net with no information other than the claim that they churn out large number of high quality MBAs"

To counter IIPM's apparently below-the-belt jabs, desi bloggers launched their own version of a Google-powered investigation on the institute and its founders.A US-based blogger discovered a statement by Malayendra Kishor Chaudhuri, director, IIPM, to the Election Commission—he fought the '04 parliamentary elections from Balasore in Orissa—stating he had a masters in science from the Berlin School of Economics in '62 and a PhD from the institute in '63. Another blogger in Germany noticed the institute was founded only in '71, eight years after Chaudhuri claimed to have been there.

. The issue became so hot that IIPM became the most searched term on Technorati.com (a search engine for blogs) for almost a week, even beating Apple's new range of video iPods launched at the same time.It is estimated that nearly 500 bloggers wrote on the IIPM issue, and are still tracking it.This is the second time in the last two years that bloggers have found themselves at the wrong end of the stick.In '04, Mumbai-based journalist Pradyuman Maheshwari, who wrote the gossipy blog Mediaah.com, had to shut shop as the Times of India threatened to file a defamation suit against it.

The sequence of events threw up expected questions. Should blogs, which are internet-based personal logs of events, be covered under the IT Act? Can bloggers defend their actions saying they are protected as per the fundamental rights under the Constitution? More important, does l'affaire IIPM prove there's a need to clarify the rights and responsibilities of a blogger? Should blogs be treated as any other information source like web portals or newspapers?

POSTED ANONYMOUS ON RASHMI’S BLOG "Your s*** stuff on IIPM is so a********. What you've written is totally false. At least write some believable stuff you lizard"

The Indian blogging community (or blogosphere, as it likes to call itself) is essentially a bitchy, self-indulgent and an almost incestuous network comprising journalists, wannabe-writers and a massive army of geeks who give vent to their creative ambitions on the internet. Given that the average blogger-age is 25 years, it's clear bloggers love to indulge in hearty name-calling and taking college-style potshots at others. This is probably why some of them get into trouble.

Going by the popularity of several Indian blogs, and the increasing proclivity among internet users to frequent them for information on niche issues like films, literature, and sports, it seems the time has come to lay down the ground rules for both bloggers and their targets. A Mumbai-based lawyer, Amod Paranjape, (in yet another blog) says in this particular IIPM case, both Bansal and Sabnis are on the right side of the law. "Unless and until a corporation or a company can specify whether the said articles by JAM or Sabnis resulted in tangible business losses and provide evidence for the same, it has no grounds to proceed for defamation. Once a defamation suit is filed, the claims made in the said article will be checked for veracity by the court," he says.

Award-winning blogger Amit Varma, whose independent coverage of the tsunami was considered a pioneering effort in India, says blogs are governed by the rules that apply for other media. But he agrees, "it is difficult to enforce these laws on the huge number of bloggers." Other bloggers, including Varma, feel there is a lot of self-regulation within the blogosphere. "The minute someone writes a factually incorrect story, over 50 other bloggers will corner him and his credibility will go for a toss, so does the traffic to his page," explains Varma.

MALAY CHAUDHURI LISTEN UP "The concept of Bachelor and Master degrees was, till a few years ago, as alien in Germany as little green men on Juhu chowpatty," says sumtya.blogspot.com

"The incident shows blogs are a potent weapon that could help improve accountability.Such investigations and campaigns are more effective as the transaction cost of spreading and sharing information is minimal compared to other media," says Bansal. In the future, blogs may also be used as a powerful tool for pushing political ideas as it happened during the last US elections. For example, bloggers first linked to Swiftvets.com's anti-John Kerry video and then kept the accusations alive until Kerry busted their claims using mainstream media.In another instance, bloggers questioned CBS News' credibility over the memos purportedly alleging preferential treatment towards President Bush during the Vietnam war launching a flurry of discussions across the country.Dan Rather, the blogger, had to soon apologise for the story.

However, bloggers will continue to face opposition from powerful interest groups, which will always try and target their claims to veracity.As the IIPM episode itself shows, the targeted entity blamed jealous parties for the campaign against it."We are stunned as to how people from IIMs, who are the most pampered people of India, suffer from so much inferiority complex from IIPM that, given the first opportunity to pen something (be it the so-called IIM-L professor Amit Kapoor, or ex-IIM students like Rashmi or Gaurav and all the other IIM students on the net and other media), they stoop down so low as to write relentless lies about us and spread baseless rumours about IIPM," said a widely-circulated IIPM statement.

Still, bloggers aren't worried about such things. In fact, they are confident that the IIPM's founder may soon hear from the Election Commission.

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