WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit challenging the Indian government’s new rules that require the Facebook-owned messaging platform to make people’s messages traceable, a move it says would undermine the privacy of users.
The lawsuit was filed as India brought sweeping new regulations into force on Wednesday to make social media and technology companies, that have tens of millions of users in the country, more accountable for content on their platform.
One of the new rules would require messaging platforms to identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it. WhatsApp wants that regulation blocked saying that it undermines citizens’ fundamental right to privacy.
In a statement issued after the lawsuit was filed, the government said it respects the right to privacy as a fundamental right but "no Fundamental Right, including the Right to Privacy, is absolute and it is subject to reasonable restrictions.”
The statement by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said the requirement to disclose the origin of a particular message will only arise in the case of “prevention, investigation or punishment” of very serious offences.
With over 40 million users, India is one of the biggest markets for the messaging platform. It has said that it is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages.
“Technology and privacy experts have determined that traceability breaks end-to-end encryption and would severely undermine the privacy of billions of people who communicate digitally,” WhatsApp says in a blog post on its website. It said that a government “that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance.”
Technology experts in New Delhi called the lawsuit by WhatsApp significant.
“This is one of the most significant lawsuits for privacy and it has implications not just for Indian users but globally. What will be debated in court is -- can privacy of all users be compromised because there might be a legitimate demand from law enforcement agencies for information on one user or one message,” said Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist and founder of technology publication Medianama. “Basically many governments around the world don’t want these kind of encrypted platforms because these platforms are blind to them and do not allow mass surveillance."
The sweeping new rules that were announced in February give the government more power to order social media companies, digital media and streaming platforms to remove content that it considers unlawful and require them to help with police investigations in identifying people who post “misinformation.” The employees of the companies in India can be held criminally liable for failing to comply with the government’s requests.
Social media companies in India have been facing a tougher environment as the government seeks to regulate content posted online, which has become one of the most important spaces to express dissenting views.
A spokesman for the opposition Congress Party, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, said the new rules were “extremely dangerous” for free speech and creativity, "unless extreme restraint is exercised" in implementing them.
Critics accuse the government of trying to stifle online criticism and point to its requests to Twitter last month to remove several tweets including some that were critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic ravaging India. The government had said the messages could incite panic and were misinformation.
Police also turned up at the local offices of Twitter in New Delhi on Monday to serve notice to the company concerning an investigation into the tagging of some government official's tweets as "manipulated media."