WhatsApp, a Facebook messaging service, is suing the Indian government for new internet rules that it believes are unconstitutional and will seriously undermine the privacy of its users. The New York Times reports. The Intermediary Guidelines and the Digital Media Code of Ethics, introduced in February and taking effect today, require messaging apps to identify the “first originator of information” when prompted. But WhatsApp, with nearly 400 million users in India’s largest market, states that it must track every message sent through its service to do so, thereby violating users’ right to privacy.
“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 spokesman for the service said in a statement. “WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages and we will continue to do everything within the laws of India.”
WhatsApp’s warnings about “traceability” are supported by many of the world’s largest technology companies and digital rights groups, including Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy and Technology. In a statement on a similar plan to mandate traceability in Brazilsaid the EFF that implementing traceability “will break users’ expectations for privacy and security, and would be difficult to implement to meet current security and privacy standards.”
In response to attempts by India and other countries to force it to track messages, WhatsApp has one FAQ on its website. It states that this traceability requirement would force it to break end-to-end encryption for everyone in its service, as there is no way it can proactively know what message a government would want to investigate ahead of time. “A government that chooses to mandate traceability is actually mandating a new form of mass surveillance,” WhatsApp’s FAQ says.
However, the Indian government argues that the rules are necessary to identify the origin of misinformation. In comments indicated by Reuters, a government official argued that WhatsApp is not asked to break encryption just to keep track of where messages come from.
But WhatsApp says tracing messages like this would be “ineffective and highly susceptible to abuse” and run the risk of punishing people for being the “creator” of content just for sharing information they found elsewhere . According to Reuters, WhatsApp argues that the new rules do not meet the tests set by a 2017 Supreme Court ruling, because that privacy must be maintained except where legality, necessity and proportionality are infringed. WhatsApp states that the new law has no explicit parliamentary support.
The lawsuit is the latest increase in tensions between the Indian government and major technology companies. In recent months, officials have ordered social media networks, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to remove messages critical of their handling of the pandemic. The NOW notes that social media companies have fulfilled many of these requests by blocking messages in the country but keeping them visible elsewhere. While the government claims these posts could cause panic, critics say it is using the new rules to silence opponents.
In another incident, police in India raided Twitter’s offices over a ‘manipulated media’ label affixed to a tweet by a government official.
While WhatsApp has been accused of facilitating the spread of misinformation around the world, the problem is particularly acute in India. Since 2017, the service has been linked to a series of lynching parties in the country after users of the service spread misinformation about child abductions. WhatsApp responded by setting new limits on message forwarding in an effort to prevent such allegations from going viral.