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WhatsApp sues government as new digital media rules come into force

WhatsApp sues government as new digital media rules come into force
Photo Credit: Reuters
26 May, 2021

Opposing the new IT Rules going into effect today, messaging platform WhatsApp has filed a legal petition against the government of India at the Delhi High Court. 

In the plea, filed on May 25, the Facebook-owned instant messaging service provider has argued that the Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code requires enabling traceability to identity originator of messages. This requirement, it says, goes against the fundamental right to privacy of citizens of India.  

“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 undermines people’s right to privacy,” a spokesperson from the company said in a statement on Wednesday. 

The IT rules were notified by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) on February 25 with a three-month deadline to regulate social media platforms as intermediaries, digital media, and over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms in the country.  

Along with the identification of the first originator of information, the guidelines also require significant social media intermediaries (with over 5 million users) to appoint a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person and a grievance officer. The platforms have to comply with content takedown requests within 24 hours. 

If the platforms fail to comply with the regulations, they risk losing their protection lawsuits and criminal prosecution. This means they could no longer claim legal immunity from what third party users share on their platforms. 

Facebook and Google have already said they are working to comply with the rules, while Twitter remains silent on the matter.  

Explained: Can the govt track WhatsApp messages without breaking encryption? 

WhatsApp is also opposing a similar issue in Brazil with a case pending in the Supreme Court of the country. 

“We have consistently joined civil society and experts around the world in opposing requirements that would violate the privacy of our users,” the spokesperson said.  

The company said allowing traceability would force private companies to collect and store who-said-what and who-shared-what for billions of messages sent each day. This would not only burden the companies with a lot of data but also make them more vulnerable to hacking.  

Plus, even after that, it would be impossible to accurately determine the context of how a message was originally shared. Traceability could also be spoofed or modified, which could result in people being framed for things they did not say or do. 

The spokesperson added that the company plans to continue to engage with the government on practical solutions that could keep people safe while allowing them to respond valid legal requests for information.