Soon enough major social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and TikTok as well as messaging apps such as Whatsapp might have to bow down to controversial Indian regulations by accepting our country’s newly formulated and proposed rules to reveal user identities as reported by major news outlets.
Close to 400 million social media users of India are reportedly set to bid goodbye to their privacy. These new rules and guidelines were proposed in December 2018 whilst asking public comment or opinion regarding this matter. The Internet and Mobile Association of India is a trade group that includes all the major tech biggies such as Facebook Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google among its members.
In response to these proposed new rules, they have responded saying that the requirements “would be a violation of the right to privacy recognized by the Supreme Court.”
However, these rules are still expected to be published the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology within this month without much changes irrespective of any responses that they have received.
“The guidelines for intermediaries are under process,” said N.N. Kaul who is the Media Adviser to the Minister of Electronics & Information Technology.
He also added that the said guidelines for intermediaries are under process and that they cannot comment any further as of this moment on the guidelines or changes until they are published.
While the rules are reportedly being said to encompass all social media and messaging apps that have more than five million users, it is still not clear if the identities of foreign users would be subject to the Indian government’s inquiries. India with 1.3 billion people, has around 560 million internet users.
The earlier draft of the proposed provisions required platforms such as Google’s YouTube or ByteDance Inc.’s TikTok, Facebook or its Instagram and WhatsApp apps, to assist the government track and trace the origins of a post that might be of a concerning issue to the law enforcement bodies of the government within 72 hours of a request. The companies would also require to keep their records for a minimum 180 days to aid government investigators, establish a brick-and-mortar operation within India and appoint both a grievance officer to deal with user complaints and a government liaison.
India’s IT minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad also received an open letter from the executives of Mozilla Corp., GitHub Inc. and Cloudflare Inc. combined saying that the guidelines could lead to “automated censorship” and “increased surveillance.”
Therefore, in order to be able to trace the origin of the content, platforms would require to surveil their users by undermining encryption and in turn harm the fundamental right to privacy of Indian users. In response to their letter, a government official said that companies such as Mozilla or Wikipedia wouldn’t fall under the new rules are only meant to cover social media platforms and messaging apps and that browsers, operating systems, online repositories of knowledge and software development platforms will be exempted.
These newly formulated regulations and guidelines mostly arise from the recent privacy concerns involving WhatsApp, therefore, further strengthening the call for making social media companies more accountable. The Facebook-owned messaging service was in the crosshair with the Indian government in October for the spyware attack that was first reported in May 2019 and confirmed by the company in October 2019 as the handiwork of an Israeli software company NSO Group that makes spyware for government agencies. While WhatsApp took NSO to court in San Francisco, it didn’t save them the ire of the Indian government.
Major concerns such as the fact that cybersecurity-related issues in India have reportedly increased by 90% in 2019 must have led the Indian government to formulate these rules. Also, the concept of ‘fake news’ which is still quite new to us and is proving to be quite a handful and overwhelming to deal with as of recently, isn’t helping much. Back in 2017 and 2018, a false report of rampant child abduction and organ harvesting circulated widely via WhatsApp. When asked for assistance regarding identifying the origins of the same, WhatsApp, however, refused to help owing to their own privacy commitments.
Way Forward For Privacy In 2020
This is not the first time for any government body to have clashed with these tech giants. Various law enforcement agencies of governments all over the world have repeatedly been pushed around by these companies who have refused to cooperate with investigations related to identifying some particular users, unlocking devices and so on.
Even when the investigations were of a concerning and grave nature such as cases related to terrorism, these tech companies stood their ground owing to their own commitments to privacy-related policies. These tech companies, as well as some civil rights groups who are actively campaigning against these new rules, say that they are an invitation to abuse and censorship, as well as a burdensome requirement on new and growing companies.