WhatsApp Sues Indian Government Over Privacy RulesDispute Between Government and Social Media Firms Heats Up
The ongoing dispute between the government of India and social media firms over privacy issues heated up this week when WhatsApp filed a lawsuit attempting to block new rules that require the tracing of the origin of certain instant messages.
In its lawsuit filed against the government, WhatsApp says compliance with the new government rules would undermine individuals' right to privacy and break the end-to-end encryption policy that WhatsApp uses.
WhatsApp filed the petition against the government of India's Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code the day before it had to begin complying with those guidelines (see: Will WhatsApp Enable Tracking Those Who Spread 'Fake News'?).
Responding to the lawsuit, Union Minister for Electronics and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad said the guidelines are designed to guard against serious offenses.
"The government of India is committed to ensure the right of privacy to all its citizens, but at the same time, it is also the responsibility of the government to maintain law and order and ensure national security,” Prasad said in a statement.
The guidelines apply to social media providers with at least 5 million registered users in India. In addition to WhatsApp and its parent company, Facebook, this includes Twitter, Koo and others.
Some security practitioners and privacy advocates believe that the guidelines will have a chilling effect on free speech.
Rahul Sharma, founder of The Perspective, a consultancy specializing in data policy and privacy, says India needs to enact a data protection law and reform guidelines for surveillance.
"Ending end-to-end encryption technology use is neither desirable nor feasible," Sharma says.
The New Rules
The government says the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code is needed to fight against the spread of fake news, revenge porn, unethical use of social media, defamatory and obscene content and blatant disrespect to religious sentiments.
Under the guidelines, social media companies must identify the "originator of information" when authorities demand it as part of an effort to unmask those credibly accused of wrongdoing.
The government says social media firms, including WhatsApp, "will not be required to disclose the contents of any message or any other information to the first originator."
In its 234-page plea, WhatsApp urges Delhi High Court to declare the traceability provision of the guidelines unconstitutional because it violates the right to privacy.
Nandakishore Harikumar, CEO and founder of Technisanct, argues that "the idea of traceability of contents can really lead us to a surveillance state."
Tim Mackey, principal security strategist at the Synopsys Cybersecurity Research Center, says that the WhatsApp lawsuit raises important issues.
"The core of the problem is one of communication and what constitutes 'free speech' - a term with different meaning in different jurisdictions," Mackey says. "If we accept that one person is free to express their opinion to another without the use of technology, is that same person free to express the same opinion to the same second person when technology facilitates the communication?
"End-to-end technology attempts to codify that the communication medium shouldn’t impose restrictions on what opinions are expressed between two people. But such a stance poses ethical problems when those opinions are criminal in nature. It is at this point, when governments are attempting to identify criminal activity, where the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code enters the picture."
Timing of Lawsuit Questioned
The government criticized WhatsApp for filing lawsuit at the very last moment before its compliance deadline.
"Any operations being run in India are subject to the law of the land. WhatsApp’s refusal to comply with the guidelines is a clear act of defiance of a measure whose intent can certainly not be doubted," the government said in a statement.