WhatsApp, founded by Mark Zuckerberg, has filed a lawsuit in Delhi against the Indian government, attempting to halt regulations that go into effect on Wednesday that would compel WhatsApp to violate privacy protections in India.
According to Reuters, WhatsApp has asked the Delhi High Court to declare that one of the new IT rules violates privacy rights in India’s constitution because it requires social media companies to identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it.
The WhatsApp lawsuit intensifies a growing conflict between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and tech titans such as Facebook, Alphabet’s parent company Google, and Twitter in one of their key global growth markets.
Tensions rose this week after police raided Twitter’s offices. The microblogging service had labelled posts by a spokesman for India’s dominant party and others as “manipulated media,” claiming that forged content was included.
New Delhi has also pressed tech companies to remove what it calls “misinformation” about the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging India, as well as some criticism of the government’s response to the crisis, which is claiming thousands of lives every day.
While the new law only requires WhatsApp, which has half a billion users in India, to unmask people credibly accused of wrongdoing, the company claims that it cannot do so on its own.
WhatsApp claims that because messages are encrypted end-to-end, it would have to break encryption for both message recipients and senders in order to comply with the new law.
When asked to comment on the lawsuit, WhatsApp said in a statement, “Requiring messaging apps to ‘trace’ chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp, which would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermine people’s right to privacy.”
Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the sources familiar with the lawsuit declined to be identified.
According to a government official, WhatsApp could find a way to track disinformation originators, a long-standing stance of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, and the US company was not asked to break encryption.
WhatsApp stated that it would continue to work with the government. On Wednesday, its Indian operations remained operational as usual.
The Indian Ministry of Technology did not respond to a request for comment.
While downloads of Signal and Telegram have increased in India, neither app has as large a user base as WhatsApp. They have yet to respond to India’s request for traceability.
The companies’ reactions to the new rules have been the subject of intense speculation since they were announced in February, 90 days before they were to go into effect.
The new Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code in India designate “significant social media intermediaries” as potentially vulnerable to lawsuits and criminal prosecution if they fail to follow the code.
WhatsApp, Facebook, and other tech companies have all made significant investments in India. However, company executives privately worry that the Modi government’s increasingly heavy-handed regulation will jeopardize their prospects.
Among the new rules are requirements that large social media companies appoint Indian citizens to key compliance roles, remove content within 36 hours of a legal order, and set up a complaint response mechanism. To remove pornography, they must also use automated processes.
Facebook has stated that it agrees with the majority of the provisions but is still looking to negotiate some. Twitter, which has drawn the most criticism for failing to remove posts by government critics, declined to comment.
Some in the industry are hoping that the new rules will be delayed while such objections are heard.
According to people familiar with the matter, the WhatsApp complaint cites a 2017 Indian Supreme Court ruling in favor of privacy in a case known as the Puttaswamy judgment.
The court determined that privacy must be protected unless legality, necessity, and proportionality all weighed against it. WhatsApp claims that the new law fails all of those tests, beginning with a lack of explicit parliamentary support.
WhatsApp’s arguments have been supported by experts.
In March, Stanford Internet Observatory scholar Riana Pfefferkorn wrote, “The new traceability and filtering requirements may put an end to end-to-end encryption in India.”
Other legal challenges to the new rules are already in the works in Delhi and elsewhere.
In one, reporters argue that the underlying law does not support the extension of technology regulations to digital publishers, including the imposition of decency and taste standards.