WhatsApp has filed a complaint in Delhi against the Indian government, seeking to block regulations that are set to take effect on Wednesday, according to reports. Experts believe the regulations would require the California-based Facebook (FB.O) unit to violate privacy rights.
The Facebook-owned messaging app filed a lawsuit on Tuesday to overturn laws requiring it to "trace" the origin of messages sent via the service, which it claims violates users' privacy.
According to people familiar with the case, the WhatsApp lawsuit cites a 2017 Indian Supreme Court decision in favor of privacy in a case known as Puttaswamy.
Privacy must be protected unless legality, necessity, and proportionality all weigh against it, according to the court. The new rules, according to WhatsApp, fails all three of these tests, beginning with the lack of clear parliamentary support.
How is it a violation of their privacy regulations?
According to people familiar with the case, it asks the Delhi High Court to declare that one of the new rules violates India's constitution by requiring social media companies to disclose the "first originator of information" when authorities demand it.
It makes a good case against message traceability. "Other parts of the government" have reportedly objected to the traceability clause, according to a WhatsApp spokesperson.
While the legislation allows WhatsApp to reveal the identities of only those that have been credibly convicted of misconduct, the company claims it cannot do so on its own. Since messages are end-to-end encrypted, WhatsApp claims it will have to crack encryption for both recipients and "originators" of messages to comply with the rule.
Reuters, which broke the news on Wednesday, was unable to independently confirm whether WhatsApp, which has nearly 400 million Indian users, had filed a lawsuit in court or when it could be investigated by the court. Because of the sensitivity of the subject, those with knowledge of the situation declined to be named.
Tension due to new regulations
The litigation intensifies a tussle between the Indian government and tech behemoths like Facebook, Alphabet (GOOGL.O), and Twitter (TWTR.N) in one of their most important global growth markets.
Following a police visit to Twitter's offices earlier this week, tensions have risen. Posts by a spokesperson for the ruling party and others were labeled as "manipulated media," with forged material included, according to the microblogging site.
The government has also demanded that tech firms delete not only misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging India, but also criticism of the government's response to the epidemic, which is claiming thousands of lives every day.
"We have consistently joined civil society and experts around the world in opposing requirements that would violate the privacy of our users. In the meantime, we will also continue to engage with the government of India on practical solutions aimed at keeping people safe, including responding to valid legal requests for the information available to us," said a spokesperson of the California-based Facebook unit.
Crackdown on Dissent
The government has demanded that the new regulations level the playing field by regulating online content in the same way that newspapers, television, and film are controlled. The rules were described as "progressive" and "liberal" in a press release following their announcement. Of digital channels, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, "We want them to be more responsible, more accountable."
Many see the rules as a continuation of Modi's authoritarian government's repression of dissent. Since Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, freedom of the press and speech have been severely curtailed, with mainstream media increasingly under the government's control. Nevertheless, online news platforms have emerged as one of the last bastions of independent journalism.
Anti-government activities, such as the massive farmers' protests that have been going on in India since November, have used social media, such as Twitter, as a critical organizing and awareness tool. As a result, the government has attempted to exert control over the sites, requesting that Twitter delete thousands of accounts critical of the government, for example.
Future of tech companies in India
The rules would have a major impact on how big tech companies like Facebook, which operates WhatsApp, and Twitter work in India, one of the world's largest and most lucrative markets. So far, the tech firms have remained silent about whether or not they would comply, but Mozilla, the internet corporation, has stated that "ripple effects of these provisions will have a devastating impact on freedom of expression, privacy, and security," will be followed.
Indian digital news platforms The Wire.in and The News Minute are among those who have challenged the IT rules in court, in a petition presented to the Delhi high court, arguing they are "palpably illegal".
These regulations are already having an impact. Streaming sites like Amazon Prime and Netflix, which were previously unregulated by the government, will now be subject to the same stringent content regulations.
India isn't about bullying social media platforms. It's also taking a worrying step toward creating a loophole into end-to-end encrypted messaging applications, which keep users' interactions safe and private.
India's latest social media reforms require messaging platforms like Signal and WhatsApp, which have a combined user base of half a billion in the world, to keep track of messages' first originators—an unprecedented and anti-privacy decision that could make it difficult for everyone to communicate anonymously online in the future.
For a long time, other nations, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, have been persuading tech firms to create similar provisions. If messaging apps can provide a solution for India, the rest of the world will most likely follow.
Illegal and Damaging content
Though India's new rules may be harmful to free expression, that doesn't mean a social media platform doesn't need to be regulated—legislators are already attempting to hold them accountable.
While current social media guidelines, such as the one released by India, are "deeply troubling" and "disproportionate," according to Shreya Tewari, a staff fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center, government action may be the key to developing more effective mechanisms for online moderation.
However, such laws must be thorough, implemented by adequate judicial supervision, and "fall in line with international standards" in order to be fully efficient and equitable.