WhatsApp moves court against govt on new privacy rules

The lawsuit reportedly asks High Court to declare that one of the new rules is a violation of privacy rights in India’s constitution

WhatsApp, messages, New Year's eve, social media platform,
WhatsApp has nearly 400 million users in India. -- Representational Image

Popular social media platform WhatsApp has filed a legal complaint in Delhi against the Indian government seeking to block regulations coming into force on Wednesday that experts say would compel the California-based Facebook unit to break privacy protections, Reuters reported quoting sources.

The WhatsApp move comes a day after its parent company Facebook said it is “aiming to comply” with government’s new rules intended to regulate online content. It also follows police’s visit to the office of microblogging platform Twitter after it labeled posts by a spokesman for the dominant party and others as containing “manipulated media”, saying forged content was included.

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The WhatsApp lawsuit, described to Reuters by people familiar with it, asks the Delhi High Court to declare that one of the new rules is a violation of privacy rights in India’s constitution since it requires social media companies to identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it.


While the law requires WhatsApp to unmask only people credibly accused of wrongdoing, the company says it cannot do that alone in practice. Because messages are end-to-end encrypted, to comply with the law WhatsApp says it would have break encryption for receivers, as well as “originators”, of messages.

Reuters could not independently confirm the complaint had been filed in court by WhatsApp, which has nearly 400 million users in India, nor when it might be reviewed by the court. The people with knowledge of the matter declined to be identified. A WhatsApp spokesman declined to comment.

The lawsuit would escalate a growing struggle between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and tech giants including Facebook, Google parent Alphabet and Twitter in one of their key global growth markets.

The government has also pressed the tech companies to remove not only what it has described as misinformation on the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging India, but also some criticism of the government’s response to the crisis, which is claiming thousands of lives daily.

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The response of the companies to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code), Rules 2021 has been a subject of intense speculation since they were unveiled in February, 90 days before they were slated to go into effect. Digital rights experts have said it would “fundamentally” change the Indian internet. The rules drafted without much consultation were criticized for being back door to implement “political censorship” of content.

The new rule, promulgated by the ministry of information technology, designates “significant social media intermediaries” as standing to lose protection from lawsuits and criminal prosecution if they fail to adhere to the code.

WhatsApp, its parent Facebook and tech rivals have all invested heavily in India. But company officials worry privately that increasingly heavy-handed regulation by the Modi government could jeopardize those prospects.

Among the new rules are requirements that big social media firms appoint Indian citizens to key compliance roles, remove content within 36 hours of a legal order, and set up a mechanism to respond to complaints. They must also use automated processes to take down pornography.