According to sources, WhatsApp has filed a legal complaint in Delhi against the Indian government, seeking to stop regulations from taking effect on Wednesday. Experts agree the regulations would force Facebook's California-based unit to breach users' privacy rights.
The lawsuit asks the Delhi High Court to declare that one of the new rules violates India's constitution by forcing social media sites to reveal the "first originator of information" when authorities demand it, according to people familiar with the matter.
While the law permits WhatsApp to expose the identity of those who have been credibly convicted of misconduct, the company says it is unable to do so on its own. WhatsApp says it would have to break encryption for both recipients and "originators" of messages to comply with the law because messages are end-to-end encrypted. Reuters was unable to reliably confirm whether WhatsApp, which has 400 million users in India, had filed a complaint in court or when it will be heard. Those with knowledge of the situation declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter. WhatsApp's representative refused to comment.
The lawsuit adds to a squabble between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government and tech behemoths such as Facebook, Alphabet's parent company Alphabet, and Twitter in one of their most important global growth markets. Tensions have risen after a police visit to Twitter's offices earlier this week. According to the microblogging site, posts by a spokeswoman for the ruling party and others were labelled as containing "manipulated media," which included forged content.
The government has also lobbied tech firms to delete not only misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic that is ravaging India, but also criticism of the government's response to the epidemic, which is taking thousands of lives every day. Since the new rules were announced in February, there has been a lot of discussion about how businesses will respond to them.
The Ministry of Information Technology's Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code designates "significant social media intermediaries" as being vulnerable to litigation and criminal prosecution if they do not follow the code. WhatsApp's parent company, Facebook, and tech rivals have also made significant investments in India. However, business officials privately worry that the Modi government's increasingly heavy-handed regulation would jeopardise those prospects.
According to the new rules, big social media firms must appoint Indians to key compliance positions, remove content within 36 hours of a legal order, and set up a mechanism to respond to complaints. They could also use automated systems to remove pornography. Facebook has confirmed that it agrees with the majority of the terms, but that some of them are still being worked out. Twitter has refused to comment after being chastised for failing to censor government critics' tweets.
Some in the industry are hoping for a delay in the introduction of the new rules until these issues are resolved. The WhatsApp complaint, according to sources familiar with the matter, cites a 2017 Indian Supreme Court ruling in favour of privacy in a case known as Puttaswamy. Privacy must be protected unless legality, necessity, and proportionality all weigh against it, according to the court. The rule, according to WhatsApp, fails all three of these tests, beginning with the lack of clear parliamentary support. WhatsApp's points have been backed up by experts.
In March, Stanford Internet Observatory scholar Riana Pfefferkorn wrote, "The new traceability and filtering requirements may put an end to end-to-end encryption in India." In Delhi and elsewhere, other legal challenges to the new rules are still pending.
Journalists claim is one that the underlying regulation does not support the application of technology laws to digital publishers, including the imposition of decency and taste standards.
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