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WhatsApp can be banned in India after new rules if it refuses to dilute privacy protection

WhatsApp, in the past, has put down a government request to trace message origin on the platform citing it will undermine end-to-end encryption.

twitter-logoIndia Today Tech | February 25, 2021 | Updated 18:08 IST
WhatsApp app icon on iPhone. (Image: Unsplash)
WhatsApp app icon on iPhone. (Image: Unsplash)

Highlights

  • The government has notified the new IT Rules 2021.
  • Social media platforms need accountability against their misuse and abuse.
  • The government says new rules around social media platforms have a soft-touch oversight mechanism.

The government of India on Thursday announced the all-new Information Technology Rules 2021, which include intermediary guidelines and a digital media ethics code. While the new rule will take some time to come into effect, the government has put forward a firm stand to identify a message's originators. This means that platforms like WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram and others that use end-to-end encryption for messages may have to break it to comply with the government's new rule.

Announcing the new Information Technology Rules 2021, Union Ministers Prakash Javadekar and Ravi Shankar Prasad on Thursday pointed out that if a tweet or message has not originated in India, then the app must tell the government who in India received it first.

"We have always been clear as a company that we welcome regulations that set guidelines for addressing today's toughest challenges on the Internet. Facebook is committed to people's ability to freely and safely express themselves on our platforms. The details of rules like these matter, and we will carefully study the new rules that were just published. We acknowledge and appreciate the recognition from the Minister on the positive contributions of social media to the country. Facebook is an ally for India, and the agenda of user safety and security is a critical one for our platforms. We will continue to work to ensure that our platforms play an enabling role in fuelling the exciting digital transformation of India," said Facebook spokesperson responded to India Today Tech.

Notably, WhatsApp had earlier put down government requests to identify the origin of messages citing it could break end-to-end encryption.

"Building traceability would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse. WhatsApp will not weaken the privacy protections we provide," a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement back in 2018.

Under the new rule, popular social media platforms like WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, among others, will come under the new guidelines laid by the government on Thursday.

"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," the government said in its new rule announced on Thursday.

"Intermediary shall not be required to disclose the contents of any message or any other information to the first originator," the government also notifies that the app or platform doesn't need to alert the user who in this case could be the originator of a message.

India Today Tech has reached out to WhatsApp to understand if it is possible to share the identification of origin without breaking end-to-end encryption. We will update the story once we hear back from the company.

It is worth mentioning that Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad while responding to one of the questions during the press conference on Thursday, said that the government's information would not require these apps to break end-to-end encryption. He said that the government is only asking for the identity of the person who originated the message and not the message itself.

This is not the first time when there is a situation where apps like WhatsApp have been questioned for their stance on unable to trace the origin of messages. Earlier, the government gave a stern warning to such apps to come with a solution and find a way to tackle misinformation which was once a big issue for WhatsApp.

It will be interesting to see what solution platforms like WhatsApp bring to comply with the government directives under the new IT rule announced on Thursday. If things go wrong, we can expect the government to take a tough call to ban a platform if it continues not to follow government directives.

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