Hijack of @PMOIndia: Kicking up dust in the virtual world
Last week, the PMO changed its Twitter handle from @PMOIndia to @PMOIndiaArchive. According to cyber experts once the original handle was changed to a new one, it stood surrendered and could be claimed by anyone and used. In this case, it turned out to be a 19-year-old teenager Qasim Ali from Lucknow who claimed this handle, with thousands of followers trickling in every second to follow the newly-created account, which they presumed would be linked to PM designate Narendra Modi’s office.
Explaining the crisis, cyberlaw expert and Supreme Court lawyer, Pavan Duggal said, ‘It is a distinct crime that comes under the Information Technology Act 2000 (also known as ITA-2000, or the IT Act). It is important to understand that after @PMOIndia changed its handle to @PMOIndiaArchive, then the former handle was surrendered and came to be available in the public domain. Twitter handles, by their intrinsic nature, are made available on first come first served basis. After coming in the public domain, the said Twitter handle was free to be registered and that is how it was picked up by a teen and used.’
‘This incident indicates the gray areas while dealing with Twitter jurisprudence as also the inadequacy of the existing Indian cyberlaw to deal with the situations like the present one. Officially verified Twitter handles like @PMOindia or handles belonging to any other government institution, used for official communications, are extremely crucial and important and need to be seen and recognised as national assets and part of India’s critical information infrastructure,’ he explained. Duggal noted that the incident could have had far serious repercussions had it not been contained in time. ‘Fortunately, in the case under reference, this Twitter handle was not misused by the user who created it. If that had happened, it would have been disastrous for India as a nation. We need to appreciate that in this case, Twitter is an intermediary under the Information Technology Act, 2000 and is mandated to exercise due diligence, while discharging its obligations. Also for example, Twitter was well within its powers to process an official request from the PMO concerning the return of the said Twitter handle, if so made,’ he said.
Supreme Court lawyer MR Shamshad, gives more insight into the case: ‘The entire dispute that has arisen from this issue is because the @PMOIndia handle may have been surrendered by its user to twitter and once it is surrendered, it is available for anyone in the world to use. It is simply a matter of chance that an Indian has claimed this account. The issue would remain the same if someone, say from Cyprus or Peru would have claimed the account. But would this issue have been raised in a similar way then? Incidentally, someone from India claimed this account, and has not violated any law.’
‘Any authority in India (for example, in this case the PMO) can’t invoke the law of copyright, trademark or ownership on it. One needs to be clear that the case of website domain ownership is also available to the owner till he is the valid user and complies with the conditions attached there too,’ he added.