FP StaffMay 26, 2021 21:21:22 IST
The Centre on Wednesday issued a clarification on WhatsApp’s lawsuit against the new IT rules saying that it respects the right to privacy and none of the new measures proposed by India will impact the normal functioning of WhatsApp in any manner.
#JUSTIN: Centre says it respects the Right to Privacy& has no intention to violate it when #WhatsApp is asked to disclose the origin of a particular message. This comes after WhatsApp moved the Delhi HC to challenge rule mandating it to identify the first originator of message pic.twitter.com/tPUCv7AE0g
— The Leaflet (@TheLeaflet_in) May 26, 2021
Earlier on Wednesday, WhatsApp had sued the Indian government to stop what it said were oppressive new internet rules that would require it to make people’s messages “traceable” to outside parties for the first time. The lawsuit, filed by WhatsApp in the Delhi High Court, sought to block the enforceability of the rules that were handed down by the government this year. The official statement by the Central Government said, “Such requirements are only in case when the message is required for prevention, investigation or punishment of very serious offences related to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order, or of incitement to an offence relating to the above or in relation with rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material.”
“It is in public interest that who started the mischief leading to such crime must be detected and punished. We cannot deny as to how in cases of mob lynching and riots, etc. repeated WhatsApp messages are circulated and recirculated whose content are already in public domain. Hence the role of who originated is very important,” the statement further read.
The press release also quoted Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad as saying: “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.”
“None of the measures proposed by India will impact the normal functioning of WhatsApp in any manner whatsoever and for the common users, there will be no impact,” Prasad further said.
Government 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.- says @rsprasad Details: https://t.co/x45IqRnnVl — PIB_India MeitY (@MeityPib) May 26, 2021
What triggered this showdown involving WhatsApp and the Indian government
WhatsApp, a messaging service owned by Facebook that is used by over 1 billion users world, claimed in its suit that the rules, which were set to come into effect Wednesday, were unconstitutional.
Suing India’s government is a highly unusual step by WhatsApp, which has rarely engaged with national governments in court. But the service said that making its messages traceable “would severely undermine the privacy of billions of people who communicate digitally” and effectively impair its security. WhatsApp has stood firm in saying it does not have any insight into users’ data, and that it does not store messages exchanged between users because the service is end-to-end encrypted, which allows users to communicate securely without letting others access their private messages.
“Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that a requirement to ‘trace’ private messages would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said. “WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages and we will continue to do all we can within the laws of India to do so.”
The rules that WhatsApp is objecting to were proposed in February by Prasad. Under the rules, the government could require tech companies to take down social media posts it deemed unlawful. WhatsApp, Signal and other messaging companies would also be required to create “traceable” databases of all messages sent using the service, while attaching identifiable “fingerprints” to private messages sent between users.
The lawsuit is part of a broadening battle between the biggest tech companies and governments around the world over which of them has the upper hand. Australia and the European Union have drafted or passed laws to limit the power of Google, Facebook and other companies over online speech, while other countries are trying to rein in the companies’ services to stifle dissent and squash protests. China has recently warned some of its biggest internet companies against engaging in anticompetitive practices.
Critics have said the government’s decision to impose new rules on significant social media intermediaries (SSMI) was a way to silence its detractors. As India dealt with the onset of a devastating second COVID-19 wave in April, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were all ordered to remove several posts from their platforms that criticised the Modi government and its handling of the situation. Asking SSMIs to remove these posts, officials had said the posts could incite potentially create panic among the masses, consequentially negatively impact its response to the crisis.
Facebook (and by natural extension, WhatsApp) have built and nurtured working relationships with officials in several countries worldwide, including in India. WhatsApp has previously revealed it responds to lawful requests for information and has a dedicated unit to help law enforcement officials in emergency situations.
The filing of the suit in Delhi is one of the rare occasions when WhatsApp has openly pushed back. In the past, the messaging service has been shut down several times in Brazil, after the company refused to share user data with the government. WhatsApp has also clashed with authorities in the US, who targeted the inclusion of ‘back doors’ in encrypted messaging services, which could be used to monitor criminal activity.
However, WhatsApp has argued the technology would not work if it tried enacting India’s new “traceability” rules. A move like that would be “ineffective and highly susceptible to abuse,” the company said.
With inputs from agencies