According to The New York Times, Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp is suing India’s government over new internet rules that it claims are unconstitutional and will “severely undermine the privacy” of its users.
The Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, which went into effect today, includes a requirement that messaging apps identify the “first originator of information” when asked.
However, WhatsApp, which has nearly 400 million users in its largest market of India, claims that doing so would necessitate tracking every message sent through its service, infringing on users’ right to privacy.
“Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that requiring private messages to be “traced” would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse,” a service spokesperson said in a statement.
“WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages, and we will continue to do everything possible within Indian laws to do so.”
Many of the world’s largest technology companies and digital rights organizations, including Mozilla, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and the Center for Democracy and Technology, have backed WhatsApp’s warnings about “traceability.”
The EFF stated in a statement about a similar plan to mandate traceability in Brazil that implementing traceability “will break users’ expectations of privacy and security, and would be difficult to implement to match current security and privacy standards.”
WhatsApp has published a FAQ on its website in response to efforts by India and other countries to force it to trace messages. It claims that this traceability requirement would force it to break end-to-end encryption for everyone on its service because there is no way for it to know ahead of time what message a government might want to investigate.
According to WhatsApp’s FAQ, “a government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance.”
The Indian government, on the other hand, claims that the rules are necessary to track the origins of misinformation. According to Reuters, a government official stated that WhatsApp is not being asked to break its encryption, but rather to track where messages originate.
However, WhatsApp claims that tracing messages like this would be “ineffective and highly susceptible to abuse,” and that it risks punishing people for being the “originator” of content simply for re-sharing information found elsewhere.
According to Reuters, WhatsApp claims that the new rules do not meet the standards set by a 2017 Supreme Court decision.
That is, privacy must be protected except when it is required by law, necessity, or proportionality. WhatsApp claims that the new law does not have explicit parliamentary support.
The lawsuit is the latest in a series of spats between the Indian government and major technology companies. In recent months, officials have directed that posts critical of their handling of the pandemic be removed from social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
According to the New York Times, social media companies have complied with many of these requests by blocking posts within the country but allowing them to be viewed elsewhere. While the government claims that these posts may cause panic, critics claim that the new rules are being used to silence critics.
In another case, police in India raided Twitter’s offices after a government official’s tweet was labelled as “manipulated media.”
While WhatsApp has been accused of facilitating the spread of misinformation all over the world, the issue has been especially acute in India.
Since 2017, the service has been linked to a series of lynchings in the country after users spread false information about child abductions on the platform. WhatsApp responded by imposing new restrictions on message forwarding in an attempt to prevent such accusations from spreading.