LONDON: WhatsApp has filed a lawsuit in Delhi against the Indian government seeking to block the entry into force of regulations on Wednesday that experts say would force the California-based Facebook unit to violate privacy protections, sources said.
The case, described to Reuters by people who know it, asks Delhi’s High Court to rule that one of the new rules violates the right to privacy in India’s constitution because it requires companies to social media to identify the “first author of the information” when the authorities require it.
While the law requires WhatsApp to only unmask those credibly accused of wrongdoing, the company says it cannot do it on its own in practice. Because messages are end-to-end encrypted, to comply with the law, WhatsApp says it has discontinued encryption for recipients, as well as “senders” of messages.
Reuters, which first reported the story on Wednesday, could not independently confirm that the complaint was brought to court by WhatsApp, which has nearly 400 million users in India, or when it could be reviewed by the court. People with knowledge of the subject declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.
A spokesperson for WhatsApp declined to comment.
A government official said WhatsApp could find a way to track perpetrators of disinformation, a long-standing position of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, and that the company was not asked to break the encryption.
India’s technology ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit intensifies a growing fight between Modi’s government and tech giants including Facebook, Google Alphabet’s parent company, and Twitter in one of their key global growth markets.
Tensions rose after a police visit to Twitter offices earlier this week. The microblogging service had labeled articles by a dominant party spokesperson and others as containing “manipulated media”, claiming that spoofed content was included.
The government has also urged tech companies to remove not only what it has described as disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging India, but also some criticism of the government’s response to the crisis, which thousands of victims every day.
The response of companies to the new rules has been the subject of intense speculation since they were unveiled in February, 90 days before they went into effect.
The Guidelines for Intermediaries and Code of Ethics for Digital Media, promulgated by India’s Ministry of Technology, designate “significant social media intermediaries” as being at risk of losing their protection from prosecution and criminal prosecution if they do not. do not follow the code.
WhatsApp, its parent Facebook, and its tech rivals have all invested heavily in India. But company officials privately fear that increasingly heavy regulation by the Modi government could jeopardize those prospects.
Among the new rules are requirements for large social media companies to appoint Indian citizens to key compliance roles, remove content within 36 hours of a legal order, and put in place a mechanism to respond to complaints. They must also use automated processes to remove pornography.
Facebook has said it agrees with most of the provisions, but is still looking to negotiate certain aspects. Twitter, which has been criticized the most for not removing posts from government critics, declined to comment.
Some in the industry are hoping for a delay in introducing the new rules while such objections are heard.
The WhatsApp complaint cites a 2017 Indian Supreme Court ruling upholding privacy protection in a case known as the Puttaswamy judgment, people who knew her said.
The court then concluded that privacy should be preserved, except where legality, necessity and proportionality all weighed against it. WhatsApp argues that the law fails all three tests, starting with the lack of explicit parliamentary support.
Experts supported WhatsApp’s arguments.
“New traceability and filtering requirements could end end-to-end encryption in India,” Riana Pfefferkorn, Stanford Internet Observatory Specialist, wrote in March.
Other legal challenges to the new rules are already underway in Delhi and elsewhere.
In one, journalists argue that the extension of technology regulations to digital publishers, including the imposition of standards of decency and taste, is not supported by the underlying law.