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WhatsApp drags India government to court over privacy law

Facebook Unit Says Breaking End-to-end Encryption Breaches Consumer Rights

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WhatsApp has around 400 million users in India.   © Reuters

Facebook-owned WhatsApp is challenging the Indian government in the Delhi High Court over a new rule that requires it and other social media companies to track information on their platforms.

The law, which comes into effect on Wednesday, violates user privacy rights and is unconstitutional, said WhatsApp. Complying with the law would require WhatsApp, which has around 400 million users in India, to break end-to-end encryption designed to protect user privacy.

The rules, announced in February, require "intermediaries" to delete or amend content deemed problematic. Critics are alarmed by the discretion given to the government to determine what content is considered troublesome.

"Requiring messaging apps to 'trace' chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp, which would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermine people's right to privacy," WhatsApp said in a statement on Wednesday.

"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," it said.

The suit was filed in the Delhi High court on Wednesday. WhatsApp is also fighting a legal battle on the encryption issue before the Supreme Court of Brazil.

According to a source, several organizations have written to the government in early 2019 expressing concerns about what were then draft provisions. It was also discussed then that the traceability requirement was not legal in India.

"In order to trace even one message, services would have to trace every message," WhatsApp said on its website. "That's because there is no way to predict which message a government would want to investigate in the future. In doing so, a government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance.

"To comply, messaging services would have to keep giant databases of every message you send, or add a permanent identity stamp -- like a fingerprint -- to private messages with friends, family, colleagues, doctors, and businesses. Companies would be collecting more information about their users at a time when people want companies to have less information about them," it said.

The Indian government wants social media platforms, such as WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook to comply with the new information technology rules that include taking down content within 36 hours of a legal order and to appoint a compliance officer to address grievances. They also require the companies to have an automated mechanism in place to take down any offensive content.

The Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, notified in February, said that if "significant social media intermediaries" that host third-party information and messages that do not comply with the rules, they could face lawsuits and prosecution.

The WhatsApp legal challenge comes amid growing pressure on social media platforms to toe the government line. Just this week, Twitter India offices in Delhi were "raided" by police after a tweet by a spokesperson of the ruling party Bharatiya Janata Party was tagged as "manipulated media" by the micro blogging site. It was labeled so as the document shared was found by Twitter to be fake.