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Why WhatsApp has sued Indian govt

WhatsApp says traceability forces private companies to turn over names of people who shared something even if they did not create it, but shared it out of concern, or sent it to check accuracy

WhatsApp says one of the rules under social media guidelines is against its end-to-end encryption mode WhatsApp says one of the rules under social media guidelines is against its end-to-end encryption mode

Amid a major controversy over intermediary guidelines enforced by the Centre on tech giants like Facebook, Google, WhatsApp and Twitter, Facebook-led messaging giant, WhatsApp has opened another frontier by suing the Indian government over free speech and privacy protection issues.

The lawsuit, described to Reuters by people familiar with it, requests the Delhi High Court that one of the rules under the new social media guidelines is in violation of the right to privacy in India. This rule requires social media companies to reveal the identity of "first originator of information" when government authorities ask for it.

WhatsApp believes this rule is against its end-to-end encryption model, which assures the right to privacy of every message, photo, screenshot, etc, for both sender and receiver. "We have consistently joined civil society and experts around the world in opposing requirements that would violate the privacy of our users. In the meantime, we will also continue to engage with the Government of India on practical solutions aimed at keeping people safe, including responding to valid legal requests for the information available to us," a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement.

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As per a WhatsApp blog, WhatsApp is committed to doing all it "can to protect the privacy of people's personal messages", and has joined others in opposing "traceability", a method in which companies have to trace who sent a particular message on their private messaging services.

Let's understand why WhatsApp thinks traceability violates human rights.

As per WhatsApp, traceability forces private companies to turn over the names of people who shared something even if they did not create it, but shared it out of concern, or sent it to check its accuracy.

"Through such an approach, innocent people could get caught up in investigations, or even go to jail, for sharing content that later becomes problematic in the eyes of a government, even if they did not mean any harm by sharing it in the first place," the company said in a blogpost.

It adds the threat that anything someone writes can be traced back to them takes away "people's privacy and would have a chilling effect" on what people say even in private settings, violating universally recognised principles of free expression and human rights.

Would traceability work?

As per WhatsApp, "traceability" won't work. "Tracing messages would be ineffective and highly susceptible to abuse. If you simply downloaded an image and shared it, took a screenshot and resent it, or sent an article on WhatsApp that someone emailed you, you would be determined to be the originator of that content," it said.

Even if someone copies or pastes the same piece of content and sends it along to others in an entirely different circumstance, the person could be held liable. "Think of this like a tree with many branches -- looking at just one branch doesn't tell you how many other branches there," the blogpost added.

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