WhatsApp vs Indian Government | Is your privacy secure amidst this battle?
On 26 May, 2021, WhatsApp sued the Indian Government over new internet laws, which they claimed to severely undermine user privacy. The new IT laws formulated by the Central Government of India along with the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) have been a major point of debate for the past few months. The guidelines released in February 2021, gave social media intermediaries time until May 25 to comply with the new rules.
What are the objectives of the IT rules?
The guidelines, released as a follow up to the Information Technology Act, 2000, provide a tighter set of rules for social media platforms to adhere to. The primary objective is to ensure that social media intermediaries are more accountable for the activities that their users engage in.
The major requirements include that a grievance officer based out of India is appointed by digital media platforms as part of a grievance redressal mechanism and that there is active monitoring of content, and processes to instantly take down certain content.
The guidelines specify that the intermediaries must publish their privacy policies and ensure that there is no content published that is misleading, pornographic or paedophilic in nature, violates laws, contains viruses, or harms the sentiments of the nation.
These guidelines apply majorly to larger platforms, with over 50 lakh users. This includes Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and Koo. Along with the guidelines, MeitY specifies that if the companies fail to implement the guidelines, they are liable to punishment under the Indian Penal Code.
What are WhatsApp’s concerns regarding privacy?
WhatsApp has claimed the rules to be unconstitutional and in violation of user privacy. The guidelines which demand that the sources of misleading and questionable content be traced by intermediaries, require WhatsApp to break their end-to-end encryption, which is turned on by default for all users to strengthen data security.
This means WhatsApp would have to re-engineer default settings for Indian users and support traceability, which WhatsApp claims to “stifle free speech”. In an online post by WhatsApp, they stated firmly that a government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance.
Moreover, traceability does not ensure that the source of content is found. If someone were to download an image off another site, or forward a link which had been emailed to them, they would be identified as the source, even if that is not the case.
What is the government’s response to the backlash?
The government declared WhatsApp’s lawsuit as a clear act of defiance, and accused the company, owned by Facebook, of making a last-minute attempt to prevent the regulations from coming into effect. The government also questioned WhatsApp’s own commitment to user privacy pointing out that the company plans to “share the data of all its users with its parent company, Facebook, for marketing and advertising purposes.”
The government denied any constitutional infringements, calling the laws a “reasonable restriction” on the right to privacy. MeitY said that widely circulated WhatsApp messages had led to riots and lynchings in the past, and this called for action.
This lawsuit is the newest struggle of a battle between big tech companies which have a huge and growing user base in India, and the Indian government, which has brought in increasingly heavy-handed measures to regulate the online sphere, which is seen as a space for dissent.
Reactions from other social media intermediaries
The new IT rules impact several social media intermediaries, not just WhatsApp. The government has often clashed with Twitter, even in the past, demanding that the site remove anti-government tweets related to the farmers’ protests earlier this year and more recently tweets which criticised the government’s handling of the pandemic. Twitter has complied with some of the requests while refusing to comply with others. Twitter has issued a statement on its platform around the IT rules as well. “We, alongside many in civil society in India and around the world, have concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules,” the statement said.
While WhatsApp is pursuing the lawsuit against the government, its parent company Facebook issued a statement regarding their compliance towards the guidelines. A spokesperson for the company stated their aims to comply with all the guidelines a day past the deadline, and they had failed to appoint a resident grievance officer.
Meanwhile, Google, with a long history of compliance to government requests, said they respected the guidelines and were still working on implementation. In a statement, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said the company will comply with all laws. “It’s obviously early days and our local teams are very engaged… we always respect local laws in every country we operate in and we work constructively. We have clear transparency reports, when we comply with government requests, we highlight that in our transparency reports.”
Sources - The Guardian, Indian Express, MeitY, WhatsApp