The Centre on Wednesday said that no fundamental right, including the right to privacy, is absolute and added that it is subject to reasonable restrictions.
The government’s statement came in response to WhatsApp challenging in the Delhi High Court a provision under India’s new social media rules, which mandates that the company identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it. WhatsApp argued that the provision was unconstitutional and against people’s fundamental right to privacy.
Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the government is committed to ensure the right of privacy to all Indian citizens, but at the same time it has a responsibility to “maintain law and order and ensure national security.”
The Centre said WhatsApp was required to reveal the origin of a particular message only for the “prevention, investigation, punishment of an offence relating to sovereignty, integrity and security of India, public order incitement to an offence relating to rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material punishable with imprisonment for not less than five years”.
The government added:
“It is in public interest that who started the mischief leading to such crime must be detected and punished. We cannot deny as to how in cases of mob lynching and riots etc. repeated WhatsApp messages are circulated and recirculated whose content are already in public domain. Hence the role of who originated is very important.”— Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology
The government called WhatsApp’s legal challenge “a clear act of defiance”.
“WhatsApp’s challenge, at the very last moment, and despite having sufficient time and opportunity available during consultation process and after the rules were enacted, to the Intermediary Guidelines is an unfortunate attempt to prevent the same from coming into effect,” the government added.
WhatsApp filed its petition against the provision on the same day that marked the end of the three months’ deadline set by the Centre for complying with its new information technology rules.
On Tuesday, WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook and technology firm Google also issued statements saying they were aiming to comply with the rules. The statements came after reports emerged that big technology companies like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were yet to do that.
A sweeping set of rules were issued on February 25 to regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content. The new rules will virtually bring these platforms, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.
Among other things, the “Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021”, the regulations mandated that social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Signal and Facebook will now have to give details about the origin of a tweet or a message on being asked by either a court or a government authority. The regulation also requires social media companies to set up a three-tier grievance redressal framework.