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Think twice before you send that mail

With e-mails at the heart of a series of new Indian lawsuits, one needs to be more careful, reports Neelesh Misra.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2007 10:17 IST

All those who flirt on e-mail, send confidential company information, or send hate mail about their bosses from anonymous IDs: here is what to do.

Stop right there. The humble e-mail is bouncing back.

In the seven years after the country passed its information technology law that made e-mails legal documents, there has been almost no awareness and compliance - and few seemed to care. But that is all changing, with e-mails at the heart of a series of new Indian lawsuits.

• Indians are often not seen as skilful in writing e-mails - most do not realise that this often can become the basis for legal action.

• E-mails are increasingly becoming a foundation of litigation in India. Many cases have been brought to court. No judgement yet reported.

• Examples: Employee terminated for illegal or wrongful conduct, termination of legal relationships between entities and persons, use of e-mail to communicate resignation, abusive e-mails and "cyber defamation", leaking company data.

• E-mail archiving shaping up into big business

"People are extremely flippant and casual. We often do not perceive the-mail as a serious form of communication. People do not realise that it can have serious legal repercussions," said Pavan Duggal, an expert on internet-related laws.

The costs are heavy. Under Indian laws, offenders can be imprisoned for a maximum of 10 years and may have to pay a penalty of up to Rs 1 crore.

Employees of Integrix, a networking company, recently received an e-mail purportedly from one of its directors, promising to help them pass a crucial certification examination without sitting or it-"for a consideration".

The e-mail was traced back to an Internet Protocol address that provides the exact location of a computer. Bharti, the service producer, released the IP address on a court's instructions - showing that the mail came from a former company director, sacked for alleged financial irregularities. He is now being prosecuted after the e-mail was admitted as evidence.

The case also set a new precedent - the Delhi High Court allowed Integrix attorney Duggal to sue an anonymous person identified only by his IP address, before his identity was known.

What the law says

• E-mails are considered legal documents in India since 2000, when the Information Technology Act came into force.

• But the law specifies several conditions which need to be fulfilled before electronic information can be considered legal documentation.

• E-mails are legal if they are made available in electronic form, and accessible in a way that they can be used for future reference.

• They must be retained in the format in which they were originally generated, sent or received. Electronically available details showing the identification of the origin, destination, date and time of dispatch or receipt are a must.

• Offenders can be imprisoned for a maximum of 10 years and may have to pay a penalty of up to Rs 1 crore.

A management trainee at the HDFC Bank lost her job after it was proved that she shot off anonymous e-mails using the bank's network to the clients of her ex-boyfriend, a lawyer, falsely claiming that he had been debarred by the lawyers' professional body.

An employee who quit a BPO in Gurgaon to set up her own back office operation has been sued on the basis of e-mails forwarded to herself in the weeks leading up to her resignation, allegedly containing privileged company information and client data.

A man in Mumbai lost his job for writing an e-mail with sexual undertones to a fellow employee in an Information technology-enabled services company. An employee of a rubber company in Noida faces charges of writing an e-mail full of expletives about his managing director from a fake ID.

Names of employees and some companies cannot be disclosed before courts give their rulings.

But Indian laws require a complex set of requirements to prove that e-mails have not been tampered with.

Until now, "it was driven by corporate governance, not laws of the land," said Manoj Chugh, South Asia chief of the United States-based EMC, whose company helps archive e-mails in keeping with Indian laws.

But companies are swiftly realising the need to archive mails - EMC's customer base grew by 150 companies, from 350 to 500, between May and December last year, he said.

"You write an e-mail and it is as good as a letter written in the physical world," said leading intellectual property attorney Pravin Anand.

Email Neelesh Misra:

First Published: Jan 27, 2007 19:59 IST