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Indian worker quits IBM after blog dispute

As the blogosphere burgeons on the subcontinent, a Big Blue employee resigns to spare the company embarrassment over a posting.

Former IBM employee Gaurav Sabnis' blog mattered more than his job.

In a post to the blog on Aug. 5, the onetime sales specialist in IBM's server division in Mumbai quoted an article in online magazine JAM that criticized a privately run management school.

Problem was, the target of the criticism--the Indian Institute of Planning and Management--happened to be an IBM customer, having recently purchased 1,500 ThinkPads for its students.

In response to the post, the institute contacted IBM.

"I spoke to my manager, who...confirmed that IIPM had given IBM a ensure I deleted my posts," Sabnis wrote on his blog, adding that the deadline was Oct. 10.

Big Blue , he said, but he decided to quit.

News of Sabnis' blog-related resignation is circulating among the nascent Indian blogosphere, and could provide an opportunity to clarify the legal liabilities of bloggers in India.

Sabnis told CNET that he handed in his resignation "to avoid unnecessary headaches for IBM." The company had no comment.

The management school confirmed that it had spoken to the tech giant about Sabnis' blog.

"Yes, we have approached IBM and asked them to take a proper action against someone spreading baseless lies against a reputed institution. They did what they must have deemed fit after their internal examinations and procedures," said Anil Saxena, head of corporate communications at IIPM.

Blogging in India is just now taking off. The success of blogs about last winter's tsunami in generating information on relief operations and missing persons has attracted wide attention globally. Blogs that play media watchdog are also popular and are read with interest in media and marketing circles. The controversy over the Sabnis affair is one of the first times that Indian blogs are uniting to take a stand in what they say is an attempt to preserve their freedom.

The case has also raised a fundamental legal issue--can a blogger be sued for defamation, just as a journalist or editor of a print periodical? The Indian Penal Code covers defamation in traditional media, but digital content falls under the purview of the IT Act of 2000, which is silent on defamation.

"The present case represents a landmark opportunity to determine the legal view on the rights and liability of bloggers," said Pavan Duggal, a supreme court attorney and head of a cyberlaw consulting firm, Pavan Duggal Associates in New Delhi.

"The matter becomes more interesting when the blogging site is located outside physical territorial boundaries of India. It throws up ticklish and complicated issues concerning jurisdiction in cyberspace," Duggal said. "In the present case, since the blogging site is physically located in the U.S., governed by strict U.S. privacy laws, it is very difficult to get the relevant details about the blogger and his activities from the blogging site, including logs."

Some people in the United States have lost jobs over content they've posted on blogs. In a widely publicized case last year, Delta Air Lines fired flight attendant Ellen Simonetti over her blog, and online postings spurred the departure of Google employee Mark Jen just 11 days after he joined the search giant.

In the Indian incident, IIPM's Saxena confirmed that legal notices have been served on JAM, the online journal. "We have decided that we will take legal action against any form of media trying to spread false lies and rumors about IIPM with malicious intent, in the general interest of our existing students," he added.

Sabnis says he has received a legal notice from the management institute regarding the posting.

"It is worded quasi-legally but is basically a threat over e-mail," he said.

Other bloggers who have criticized the same management center have reported receiving similar notices and have had a deluge of abusive postings on their blogs by anonymous bloggers claiming to be IIPM alumni. The school says it has nothing to do with such posts.

Sabnis, meanwhile, has been hailed by fellow bloggers, and he says he has even gotten several job offers.

And the deluge of postings on the subject indicates that for the blogging community it's a question of freedom of opinion.

"In India, it shows that bloggers' opinion matters a lot more than we thought it did," Sabnis said. "It is another example of bloggers uniting for a cause that mainstream media may not want to take up."