WhatsApp, one of the most popular free messaging platforms in India with 53 crore users, has moved court against the new Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code Rules 2021 or the new IT Rules 2021 announced by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY). The platform has termed the rules “Unconstitutional” and says that complying with these terms would mean the end of privacy.
Clause of New IT Rules 2021 that WhatsApp has a Problem With
The Government of India has included a clause in the new IT Rules 2021 with regard to identifying the first originator of messages. This clause, the Indian Government says, was recommended by the Ad-hoc committee of the Rajya Sabha on 3 February 2020 after studying the “alarming issue of pornography on social media and its effect on children and society as a whole and recommended for enabling identification of the first originator of such contents.”
The clause that WhatsApp has a problem with says: “Significant social media intermediaries providing services primarily in the nature of messaging shall enable identification of the first originator of the information that is required only for the purposes of prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution or punishment of an offence related to sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order or of incitement to an offence relating to the above or in relation with rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material punishable with imprisonment for a term of not less than five years. Intermediary shall not be required to disclose the contents of any message or any other information to the first originator.”
Is WhatsApp Right in Saying this Clause Weakens Encryption and Threatens Privacy?
According to Rajnesh Singh, regional vice president, Asia Pacific, Internet Society these rules could indeed threaten privacy and weaken encryption. “End-to-end encryption is the gold standard for keeping Internet users and systems secure. It helps prevent spies, terrorists, and hostile governments from accessing and exploiting confidential communications of government officials. It also helps keep them from penetrating critical infrastructure and private databases that could cause wide-scale, systemic disruptions to India’s economy,” he said while adding over 500 million citizens use end-to-end encrypted messaging apps in India, and they all may start to lose trust in the security of the platforms they use to communicate.
Singh also added that tracing a content’s originator could technically be a problem for social media companies as it would require from their end to suppress at least some features that are integral for strong encryption to work properly. “With the traceability requirement, the government appears to be compelling popular online platforms to weak encryption without explicitly telling them to do so,” he says.