WhatsApp says the traceability clause in India’s new IT Rules is against the right to privacy of its users. The government says the clause is essential for ensuring national security.
- On February 25, the Indian government announced new guidelines for social media intermediaries.
- Among various clauses, the new rules make it compulsory for companies to assist the govt with details of the “originator” of particular “unlawful” content on their platforms.
- WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against the Indian govt over its traceability rule calling it “unconstitutional”.
- Twitter has requested three months to comply with the new IT Rules.
- Leaving aside the issue of user privacy, WhatsApp says it will have to re-engineer the whole application for the Indian market to comply with the new IT Rules.
India’s most popular messaging platform WhatsApp created an unprecedented Big Tech vs. Govt storm when it filed a lawsuit against the Indian Government. The lawsuit filed on May 25 in Delhi High Court is related to the new Information Technology Rules 2021, the Intermediary Guidelines, and Digital Media Ethics Code. The guidelines that came into effect on May 26 and all social media platforms operating in India have to comply with them.
The new guidelines were already introduced in February. Social media platforms including Google, Facebook, and Twitter were given a 90 days timeline to comply with them.
WhatsApp has opposed one of the clauses of traceability in the new IT Rules which would force these social media platforms to trace “the first originator of the information” if demanded by the Indian government. This traceability clause applies to all messaging platforms operating in India such as Telegram, Snapchat, Signal, and many others. But considering around 400 million users of WhatsApp alone in India, the Facebook-owned platform is wary of a greater impact than others with the new rule.
“Unconstitutional” and against the right to privacy
By quoting the 2017 Justice K S Puttaswamy vs Union Of India case, WhatsApp is arguing that the provision of traceability as demanded by the government is unconstitutional and breaches the fundamental right to privacy of the people as accentuated by Supreme Court through its judgment. Therefore, WhatsApp has appealed to the Delhi HC that the clause should be declared unconstitutional and should not be put into practice.
In simple words, with the new law brought in by the Indian government, it wants WhatsApp to expose those users who are charged or suspected of any misconduct in the eyes of law.
But according to WhatsApp, it cannot do it all by itself as its messages are encrypted end-to-end. And to ensure that it is done, WhatsApp will have to break the encryption for the receivers and the originator of the message.
On February 25, the government announced its stringent guidelines to the social media intermediaries making it obligatory to help the government in finding the “originator” of “unlawful” content or messages. The new rules mandates social media giants such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to take down such content under 36 hours, come up with a grievance redressal mechanism and also aid the government with cyber investigation. As stated by IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, this “soft-touch oversight” mechanism is only introduced to curb the spread of unverified or fake news and the content that sexually abuses any gender.
The new IT Rules also require these social media intermediaries to appoint a grievance officer, Chief Compliance Officer, and Nodal Officer who are Indian residents along with their contact information. This enables the government to seek any additional information that is permitted with the new Rules and the IT Act.
WhatsApp’s concern of breaking end-to-end encryption
WhatsApp introduced its end-to-end encryption feature back in 2016. With it, calls, photos, messages, voice notes, and videos that are sent by a user are only shared with the intended receiver and not any other party, not even WhatsApp. That the Indian government is demanding to “trace” the “originator” of the message in case of any unforeseen activity, means that WhatsApp will have to bear the cost to re-engineer their whole application for the Indian market.
And if “messages” are to be traced, then the application will have to store every little piece of information that is shared by users, which as a result breaks the guarantee of end-to-end encryption that WhatsApp promises its consumers. If they have to trace one message, they will have to trace every message as it is a long chain.
Twitter requests for three months
Twitter seems wary and intimidated after the recent event when Delhi police visited one of its India offices. The company has stated that it is concerned about employee safety and the potential threat to the freedom of speech and expression of its users.
Along with this statement, the social media platform that has 175 million users in India has requested a time of three months to comply with the new IT Rules.
The Ministry of Electronics and IT has called Twitter as “most invisible” in recent times. It shared a press release on May 27 stating its lack of responsibility to take action against recent incidents, also calling Twitter’s statements baseless, false, and an attempt to defame India.
Is the consumer going to be affected?
The average consumer is not likely to suffer from any sort of impact from these regulations. Though there is a rumor on social media platforms that WhatsApp will be discontinued in India, no such guidelines have been implemented and all the social media platforms appear to be functioning as is. The centre has also said users won’t be affected.
The Indian government’s concern is to put a full stop to cybercrimes and bullying and ensure that no unverified information that is against the harmony of the nation goes viral through platforms such as WhatsApp. Is the government trying to follow Blackstone’s ratio: “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”?