Amid a raging tussle between the Centre and WhatsApp, Union Information and Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the government was not seeking to break the end-to-end encryption on the messaging platform, The Indian Express reported on Saturday.
In an interview to the newspaper, Prasad reiterated his claim that an ordinary WhatsApp user need not be concerned about the government’s new social media regulations.
“They [users] will continue using WhatsApp as they have been using,” Prasad said. “What we are seeking is very limited.”
On May 25, WhatsApp moved the Delhi High Court challenging a provision under the new social media rules, which mandates the company to identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it. In its plea, WhatsApp argued that the provision was unconstitutional and against people’s fundamental right to privacy.
The Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 were issued on February 25 to regulate social media companies, streaming and digital news content. The new rules, which came into effect on May 25, virtually bring these platforms, for the first time, under the ambit of government supervision.
Microblogging site Twitter has also said it was concerned about the “potential threat” to freedom of expression as India’s new social media rules came into effect.
Prasad explained the central government’s stand on the end-to-end encryption of messages on WhatsApp, saying that it was not seeking the content of the texts.
“We only say who started the mischief,” Prasad told The Indian Express. “And if it has come from abroad, who picked it up in India first? That is all. Therefore, we are not asking any ‘big moon’ or breaking their encryption at all. I repeat, ordinary users have full right to encryption.”
Meanwhile, WhatsApp has said that “tracing” chats “fundamentally undermines people’s right to privacy”.
“Traceability is intended to do the opposite by requiring private messaging services like WhatsApp to keep track of who-said-what and who-shared-what for billions of messages sent every day,” the messaging platform said in a blog post, published on Tuesday. “...In order to trace even one message, services would have to trace every message...In doing so, a government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance.”
The end-to-end encryption technology WhatsApp, introduced in 2016, encrypts messages in an unreadable format when it leaves the sender’s device and is decrypted in a readable format only when it is delivered on the intended receiver’s device.
In its plea in the Delhi High Court, WhatsApp has relied on the Supreme Court’s landmark 2017 judgement, establishing privacy as a fundamental right.
However, Prasad in his interview to The Indian Express said that the same judgement had mentioned that “terrorist, a criminal or a corrupt person does not have any right to privacy”. He also said India was not the only country seeking a regulatory mechanism.
On May 26, the information and technology ministry had said that countries like United Kingdom, United States, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Canada have also introduced provisions related to social media regulations.
Prasad also criticised WhatsApp for advocating for privacy, when the messaging platform itself updated its policies to share data with its parent company Facebook.
“They [WhatsApp] are themselves trying to compromise with privacy and here they are giving us gyaan [sermon] on privacy,” the Union minister told The Indian Express. “These are double standards.”