Govt says new digital rules don't violate privacy; seeks compliance report

The government on Wednesday staunchly defended its new digital rules, saying the requirement of messaging platforms like WhatsApp to disclose origin of flagged messages does not violate privacy, and went on to seek a compliance report from large social media firms.

A day after WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court challenging the new digital rules on grounds that the requirement for the company to provide access to encrypted messages will break privacy protections, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the new norms will not impact normal functioning of the popular free-messaging platform.

The requirement of tracing origin of messages under new IT rules is for prevention and investigation of "very serious offences" related to sovereignty and integrity of India and security of the state, a statement from his ministry said.

Separately, the ministry asked all significant social media companies such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp to report their status on compliance with the new rules, which kicked in from Wednesday.

The companies did not respond to emailed queries on the issue.

The new rules, announced on February 25, require large social media platforms -- defined as those with over 50 lakh users in the country -- to follow additional due diligence, including appointment of chief compliance officer, nodal contact person and resident grievance officer.

Non-compliance with rules would result in these platforms losing their intermediary status that provides them immunity from liabilities over any third-party data hosted by them. In other words, they could be liable for criminal action in case of complaints.

Sources with knowledge of the matter said large social media companies have been asked to immediately provide details and contact information of the three officials mandated under the new rules.

The ministry in the statement termed WhatsApp's last moment challenge to the IT rules as an unfortunate attempt to prevent the norms from coming into effect.

The UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada require social media firms to allow for legal interception, it said, adding "What India is asking for is significantly much less than what some of the other countries have demanded".

"Therefore, WhatsApp's attempt to portray the Intermediary Guidelines of India as contrary to the right to privacy is misguided," the official statement said, adding that the government recognises that 'Right to Privacy' is a fundamental right.

The statement quoted Prasad as saying that the government "is committed to ensure the Right of Privacy to all its citizens but at the same time, it is also the responsibility of the government to maintain law and order and ensure national security."

"The Government respects the Right of Privacy and has no intention to violate it when WhatsApp is required to disclose the origin of a particular message.

"Such requirements are only in case when the message is required for prevention, investigation or punishment of very serious offences related to the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order, or of incitement to an offence relating to the above or in relation with rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material," the statement said.

It added that while WhatsApp had generally sought an extension in timeline for enforcement of guidelines, no formal reference was made on traceability not being possible.

"Any operations being run in India are subject to the law of the land. WhatsApp's refusal to comply with the guidelines is a clear act of defiance of a measure whose intent can certainly not be doubted," the statement said.

The government said that on one hand, WhatsApp had sought to mandate a privacy policy that will allow it to share the data of all its user with its parent company, Facebook, for marketing and advertising purposes, even as the platform was making "every effort" to refuse the enactment of norms necessary to uphold law and order.

" a befuddling act, they seek to avoid responsibility and refuse to enact the very steps which permit them a safe harbour provision," the statement pointed out.

The Centre's strong response comes after WhatsApp filed a lawsuit in the Delhi High Court challenging the new digital rules, arguing that the requirement to provide access to encrypted messages will break privacy protections.

In the note to the social media companies, seen by PTI, the ministry has asked these large digital entities about their compliance status and directed them to revert with their response at the earliest "and preferably today itself".

Meanwhile, the official statement said that information on the originator of the message can only be sought as per a process sanctioned by the law, thereby incorporating sufficient legal safeguards.

Tracing the origin of flagged messages would be the last resort, "only in scenarios where other remedies have proven to be ineffective".

It emphasised that detection and punishment of the person who started the mischief leading to a serious crime is in public interest and therefore, the role of the originator is very important.

Prasad said it is WhatsApp's responsibility to find a technical solution, whether through encryption or otherwise.

(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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