WhatsApp files lawsuit against Indian government, says new media rules mean end to privacy

WhatsApp's lawsuit asks the Delhi High Court to declare that one of the centre's new rules as a violation of privacy rights in India's constitution, as it requires the social media companies to identify the "first originator of information" when authorities demand it.

Created On: May 26, 2021 13:14 ISTModified On: May 26, 2021 13:18 IST
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As per media sources, WhatsApp has filed a legal lawsuit against the Indian government seeking to block regulations that are coming into force from May 26, 2021. As per experts, the centre's new digital media rules will force the messaging platform to break its privacy protections. 

The lawsuit reportedly asks the Delhi High Court to declare that one of the centre's new rules as a violation of privacy rights in India's constitution, as it requires the social media companies to identify the "first originator of information" when authorities demand it.

While the new rule requires the platform to only give up the identity of the person accused of wrongdoing by the authorities, the company said it cannot do it alone, as messages are end-to-end encrypted. This means that to follow the new rule, the messaging platform will have to break encryption for receivers, as well as "originators", of messages.

There is no official confirmation of the same and there is also no information on when the Delhi High Court will review the lawsuit. 

Centre's new social media rules: What is the issue?

•The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) had asked social media platforms to abide by the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 by May 25, or face strict action.

•The new rules were unveiled in February 2020 and the government had given the social media firms three months to comply with them. These regulations will come into force from today, May 26, 2021.

•However, none of the firms have yet abided by the rules and non-compliance means that all these social media platforms- WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook will run the risk of losing legal immunity in India. 

What happens if they fail to comply with the rules?

The Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code designates “significant social media intermediaries” as standing to lose protection from lawsuits and criminal prosecution if they fail to adhere to the code.

Both WhatsApp and its parent firm Facebook and their tech rivals have all invested heavily in India. The tech firms worry that increasingly heavy-handed regulation by the Indian government could jeopardize their prospects in the nation. 

What do centre's new digital media rules demand?

•According to the centre's new digital media rules, big social media firms are required to appoint Indian citizens to key compliance roles.

•They are also required to remove content within 36 hours of legal order and set up a mechanism to respond to complaints.

•The tech firms are also required to use automated processes to take down pornography. 

WhatsApp's lawsuit

WhatsApp in its lawsuit has reportedly cited a 2017 Supreme Court ruling supporting privacy in a case known as Puttaswamy. The court had observed then that privacy must be preserved except in cases where legality, necessity and proportionality all weighed against it. 

WhatsApp has argued in its lawsuit that the centre's new rules fail all three of those tests, starting with the lack of explicit parliamentary backing. Several experts have backed WhatsApp’s arguments saying that the new traceability and filtering requirements may put an end to end-to-end encryption in India.

How are other social media platforms responding?

While Facebook has said that it agrees with most of the provisions but it is still looking to negotiate some aspects. Twitter, on the other, has come under the most fire for failing to take down posts by critics of the government. The social media giant is yet to comment on the rules. 

Background 

WhatsApp's lawsuit has only aggravated tensions between the PM Modi-led Indian government and the tech giants. The Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had previously sent a notice to WhatsApp, asking it to withdraw its updated privacy policy. The Ministry had stated that WhatsApp's updated privacy policy undermines the values of informational privacy and data security. 

Read more about it here: Centre asks WhatsApp to withdraw its updated privacy policy

Tensions also grew between the government and Twitter after a police visit to Twitter’s offices earlier this week. The micro-blogging site had labelled posts by a spokesman of the dominant party and others as containing “manipulated media”, saying forged content was included.

The tech giants have also been forced by the government to not only remove what it has described as misinformation on the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging India, but also some criticism of the government’s response to the crisis.

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