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I'm a software developer interested in knowing the legal aspects of Internet and technology. I came across the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 which says

"telegraph" means any appliance, instrument, material or apparatus used or capable of use for transmission or reception of signs, signals, writing, images and sounds or intelligence of any nature by wire, visual or other electro-magnetic emissions, Radio waves or Hertzian waves, galvanic, electric or magnetic means."

The Act later says:

Telegraph officer or other official making away with or altering, or unlawfully intercepting or disclosing, messages, or divulging purport of signals If any telegraph officer, or any person, not being a telegraph officer but having official duties connected with any office which is used as a telegraph office.

  1. willfully, secrets, makes away with or alters any message which he has received for transmission or delivery, or
  2. willfully, and otherwise than in obedience to an order of the Central Government or of a State Government, or of an officer specially authorized [by the Central or a State Government] to make the order, omits to transmit, or intercepts or detains, any message or any part thereof, or otherwise than in pursuance of his official duty or in obedience to the direction of a competent Court, discloses the contents or any part the contents of any message, to any person not entitled to receive the same, or
  3. divulges the purport of any telegraphic signal to any person not entitled to become acquainted with the same,

he shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.

I want to know:

  1. Does email communication and personal messaging services come under the purview of the Telegraph Act?

  2. If 1 is yes, then it is legal for Google and Facebook to read my emails and personal messages?

  • Can't answer #1.. but #2 would seem to be covered by any Terms of Service you agree to when signing up for Google or Facebook (which is why I do not use those services). – Scott Jan 16 '16 at 0:45
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Very interesting question!!!!!

Of course, one of the answers is that there have been many, many laws drafted and passed over the intervening century, that affect the agency of a privileged intermediary in electronic communications. If we just stopped at the 1885 act however, and imagined that it applied in full to today's communication, we would have to FIRST bow to the drafters and sing praises to the "legal beauty" of their definitions and language...they seem to have anticipated 2016, have they not?

It would be interesting and exciting, if only as an exercise, to bring suit before a federal judge, over whether keyword matching of personal, private communications, for the benefit of third-party advertising, was a violation of the act.

Without taking any time to delve into it myself, I would hazard a guess that the bright legal minds at google and facebook have crafted EULA agreements for their messaging apps, that expressly elicit agreement for what they do. (Did YOU read the 79 page agreement for gmail when you signed up?)

Additionally, telegraph and telephone were slightly different than today: for the most part, the lines traversed public ways, via right-of-way lease. So there was very much a "public utility" aspect to this stuff.

check out this link: http://www.durenberger.com/documents/ATTEBOOK.pdf

This has an absolutely fascinating engineer's history of the phone/telegraph system, and how it shaped our lives.

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