SAN FRANCISCO – WhatsApp sued the Indian government on Wednesday to end allegedly oppressive new internet rules that would require people’s messages to be “traced” to outside parties for the first time.
WhatsApp’s lawsuit filed with the Delhi Supreme Court aims to block the enforceability of the rules the government enacted earlier this year. WhatsApp, a Facebook service that sends encrypted messages, alleged in its lawsuit that the rules, due to go into effect on Wednesday, were unconstitutional.
The Indian government lawsuit is an extremely unusual move by WhatsApp that has seldom dealt with national governments in court. However, the service said that the traceability of its messages “would seriously undermine the privacy of billions of people who communicate digitally” and would effectively compromise its security.
“Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that the requirement to track private messages would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse,” said a WhatsApp spokesman. “WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages and we will continue to do everything we can under Indian law to do so.”
The lawsuit is part of an expanding battle between the largest tech companies and governments around the world for the upper hand. Australia and the European Union have drafted or passed laws to limit the power of Google, Facebook and other companies over online language, while other countries are trying to curtail companies’ services to quell dissent and stifle protests. China recently warned some of its largest internet companies about anti-competitive practices.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata party have worked for several years to improve the power of tech companies and to monitor more closely online statements. In 2019, the government proposed gaining new powers to suppress Internet content, which sparked a heated battle with businesses.
The rules that WhatsApp objects to were proposed in February by Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s Minister of Law and Information Technology. Under the rules, the government could require tech companies to remove social media posts it deems illegal. WhatsApp, Signal, and other messaging companies would also need to create “traceable” databases of all messages sent through the service, while also attaching identifiable “fingerprints” to private messages sent between users.
WhatsApp has long claimed that it has no insight into user data and that it does not store any messages sent between users. This is because the service is encrypted end-to-end so that two or more users can communicate securely and privately without others having access to the messages.
More than a billion people rely on WhatsApp to communicate with friends, family and businesses around the world. Many users are in India.
Critics said the new rules would be used to silence critics of the government. Last month, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were ordered to remove dozens of social media posts criticizing Mr Modi’s government and its response to the coronavirus pandemic that has struck the country. Government officials said the posts should be removed because they could panic and hamper their response to the pandemic.
The social media companies responded to many requests by making the posts invisible inside India even though they were still visible to people outside the country. In the past, Twitter and Facebook reposted some content after it was determined that it wasn’t against the law.
Tensions between tech companies and the Indian government escalated this week when police came to Twitter’s New Delhi offices to dispute labels attached to certain tweets from senior government officials. While Twitter’s offices were empty, the visit symbolized mounting pressure on social media companies to curb the speech, viewed as critical of the ruling party.
Facebook and WhatsApp have long had working relationships with authorities in dozens of countries, including India. Typically, WhatsApp has announced it will respond to legitimate requests for information and has a team to assist law enforcement officers in emergencies with immediate harm.
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WhatsApp has rarely pushed back. The service was shut down many times in Brazil after the company defied government requests for user data. And there have been skirmishes with US officials who have tried to install “back doors” into encrypted intelligence services to monitor criminal activity.
However, WhatsApp argued that the technology would not work even if an attempt was made to enforce India’s new traceability rules. Such a practice is “ineffective and very prone to abuse,” the company said.
Other tech firms and digital rights groups like Mozilla and the Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week that they support WhatsApp’s fight against “traceability”.
“The threat that everything someone writes can be traced back to them robs people of privacy and would have a terrifying effect on what people say even in private settings, which goes against generally accepted principles of free speech and expression Violates human rights, “said WhatsApp.