WhatsApp’s battle with the Indian government over its privacy policy could have global repercussions

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When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a town hall at his headquarters in Menlo Park in September 2015, employees cheered. Zuckerberg praised the Indian Prime Minister for his social media literacy, and Modi praised the CEO’s Internet.org initiative to bring connectivity to rural India. The two heads of state and government discussed the use of social media as a tool for governance and elections. The duo had previously met when Zuckerberg toured India in 2014, in the same year Facebook bought WhatsApp for $ 19 billion, bought the best messaging app in the mobile-first country and added 30 million users to its network. The two leaders hugged, signaling a looming bond between them. “India is personally very important to the history of our company here,” said Zuckerberg.

Since then, the relationship has been shattered. WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, is suing the Modi-led Indian government over new Internet laws that “seriously undermine” the privacy of their users and require messaging platforms to store messages in a traceable database. In its lawsuit, WhatsApp says it will require breaking the encryption and salvaging billions of messages from its over 500 million users in India. In 2016, WhatsApp got caught up in a similar dispute over privacy concerns in Brazil, which resulted in its service being suspended several times. But the case against the Indian government is Facebook’s first against a national government.

Privacy advocates say the battle could set a precedent for how technology platforms protect their users’ data from nosy governments. “The implications are pretty profound,” says Alan Woodward, a computer scientist at Surrey University in the UK. “If the Indian government sticks to their arms and the courts back them up, you may find a number of other governments try and start.” Something very similar. ”

India’s new IT rules were proposed in February and went into effect in May. India’s IT and Legal Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announced the laws as a method of investigating rape and child abuse, as well as crimes related to “sovereignty, integrity and security”. The crackdown on platform providers comes at a time of increasing tension between the Indian government and social media in general. Last month, Indian police visited the Twitter office in the capital, Delhi, to inform of an investigation into a tweet from a BJP minister labeled “manipulated media”.

To comply with the new law in India, messaging platforms would have to break end-to-end encryption – a system that only allows the sender and recipient to access the messages. This means that WhatsApp has to collect data every day on all messages that are exchanged between all of its subscribers. “There is no way of predicting which embassy a government might want to investigate in the future … This would seriously undermine the privacy of billions of people who communicate digitally,” WhatsApp said in its lawsuit against the Indian government. The company says the new rules are a violation of the fundamental right to privacy.

The reason technology companies traditionally stay away from data retention is because maintaining privacy comes at an enormous cost. “This huge amount of data is susceptible to theft or malicious access. They (WhatsApp) don’t want to be in this business and need to back up this data, ”says Matthew Green, Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute.

WhatsApp usage in India has grown exponentially as smartphones have become cheaper and internet access has become more affordable. India has over 500 million WhatsApp subscribers, the highest in the world. Facebook and WhatsApp are unlikely to pull out of India and its huge social media market, even if they don’t make it to court in India. “I can’t imagine Facebook won’t be in India. They are not going to withdraw from the Indian market, ”says Woodward. One possible scenario could be that WhatsApp bends the encryption rules just for the Indian market and starts collecting data on messages exchanged between users, experts say.

While WhatsApp has contributed to faster communication through its user-friendly interface, it has also become a preferred platform for spreading misinformation in India, including misusing the platform to spread fake news and organize mob violence, experts claim. While these issues are difficult to solve, breaking an encryption and thereby violating user privacy to address government concerns about fake news and mob violence is not the right approach, says Nikhil Pahwa, a New Delhi resident Digital rights activist.

Advocates and advocates of digital rights say collecting large amounts of user data messages could thwart free expression. These concerns arise from the arrest of Indian citizens for posting public comments on social media criticizing the regime. This month police filed a sedition case against filmmaker Aisha Sultana after she labeled a BJP leader a “bio-weapon”. Earlier this year, 22-year-old Disha Ravi, an Indian climate activist, was arrested for allegedly sharing a Google document with Greta Thunberg, the 18-year-old Swedish climate activist. Police called it a “tool kit” that contained an outline of how to support the farmer’s protest against the government’s new agricultural laws on social media.

“Privacy is one aspect, but there are other aspects like freedom of expression and expression,” says Mishi Choudhary, technology lawyer and founder of Software Freedom Law Center India. Earlier this year, Twitter blocked accounts of journalists and activists during a peasant protest against new agrarian reform laws ordered by the Indian government.

Others fear mass surveillance. “There is a risk that privileged communications, such as conversations between lawyers and their clients, will be seen by the state. Conversations between patients and doctors, journalists and their sources are all at risk, ”said Chinmayi Arun, Fellow on the Yale Law School information society project.

Many users in India may not be aware of the privacy issues that the new rules are shrouding. Among them is Disha Soni, a Mumbai-based charted account who has been an avid WhatsApp user since 2013. The Covid-19 pandemic slowed business in her father’s handwoven store, prompting her family to sell the store. Instead, her family has started selling handlooms like shawls via WhatsApp. She also uses the platform to share her 70-year-old father’s health reports with doctors. “I am not aware of the new rules or questions about data protection,” she says. Experts believe that many like Soni are ignorant because of the lack of public debate on the issue. “It’s something that needs to be publicly debated, and I’m not sure that the debate was still around,” says Woodward.



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