WhatsApp Sues Indian Government in a Bold Attempt to Protect Privacy Agreements with Users

ameya sathaye
By ameya sathaye June 23, 2021 10:26

WhatsApp Sues Indian Government in a Bold Attempt to Protect Privacy Agreements with Users

The Facebook subsidiary is challenging the Centre’s traceability requirements in the High Court in Delhi. Industry analysts consider this a risky move by the tech giant which has avoided confrontation so far. The legal dispute is likely to bring changes to user privacy, introduce alternative back-end solutions by the messaging service or even – in some extreme scenarios – its displacement as a regional market leader.

WhatsApp Stands Firm in Defence of Its End-to-End Encryption

Social media’s already strained relations with New Delhi were taken to the next level when WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in the High Court last week. The escalation was somewhat expected, as the Facebook-owned messaging platform has repeatedly criticised the latest regulations imposed on the online media sector.

As the digital industry continues to struggle with more demanding and restrictive regulations, Big Tech is also distinctly aware that the Indian Government can and will ban any tech company which it deems noncompliant or insecure. Indeed, New Delhi authorities have a history of hardline decisions, illustrated by a prompt ban on over 200 important Chinese apps (including global leader TikTok) which it declared a threat to national security.

The company recently introduced its WhatsApp Pay integrated service, targeting users that pay for daily household needs, buy lottery tickets online in India, bet on cricket games at 10Cric, or send money to their peers. The Facebook subsidiary also intends to launch personal insurance and pension packages as part of imminent expansion plans into its largest global market.

Should the legal controversy degenerate, however, the company risks being unable to operate freely and without the Government’s endorsement. No discussions on worst-case scenarios have been leaked at this point.

What Does the Indian Government Impose on Social Media?

WhatsApp’s biggest concern is with the “traceability” requirement that it considers a violation of privacy rights. More importantly, it will make the company violate its own terms and conditions, agreed with over 400 million desi users.

Identifying the “first originator” of a potentially dangerous message or post is the quoted priority for the Centre. Although spoken about as “mischief” instigators, legislators have foreseen that only serious crimes and public order violations will fall under regulation that concerns online media platforms.

For the past few months, the digital giant has reiterated that tracing back an originator of a private message requires the company to break end-to-end encryption (E2E). Besides grounds for potential abuse, this goes against WhatsApp’s core principle and unique selling point as a business. Company representatives stated a few months back that it does not intend to “bend” on the issue.

The new Government rules were introduced in February as an amendment of the Information Technology Act. Citing additional legal safeguards, officials defended the requirements that include a physical officer presence in India and a procedure for taking down posts and messages on social media. Despite the three transition months that followed, other online media giants have not found an acceptable compromise to their policies. Twitter is also among those companies trying to fight the new rules.

Yet, for WhatsApp to go against the Government’s will is a highly unusual development. Facebook has supported official policies for years or at least closed an eye for objectionable posts and practices from leading politicians. India is not only the company’s top market; it is the world’s second largest.

The Jury Is Still Out on E2E Encryption

While the bone of contention has been encryption (as an ultimate privacy filter), Government sources have pointed to less intrusive means being explored first when dealing with sensible content. The issue at hand for WhatsApp, however, is that it will break its own terms and conditions and open Pandora’s box of liability and legal challenges.

While the company remains adamant in its position, the social media sector may still have some alternative solutions to the stalemate. Breaking E2E encryption is not the goal itself and, quite recently, Government officials proposed alternative solutions such as digital fingerprints and embedding standard user information within messages.

One way or another, WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal and other similar services might lose the safe harbour protection they enjoy now. Unless they find a compromising solution with the Indian authorities.

ameya sathaye
By ameya sathaye June 23, 2021 10:26