News Brief

India’s Efforts to Stop Social Media Abuse Threaten Encryption

As India moves closer to implementing new strict tech rules that the government says would combat harmful social media content, WhatsApp has become the latest tech company to push back against the proposals — and push back hard.

India, the world’s largest democracy and WhatsApp’s largest market, is gearing up for national elections later this spring and social media has become a key campaign issue. So has the government’s plan to implement tough regulations on tech companies accused of spreading fake news, whip up vigilante mobs and taint politicians

Under the new rules, WhatsApp would be liable for messages spread on its app, despite the company’s inability to access such communication due to encryption. The rules would force WhatsApp to actively seek out messages deemed libelous or illegal in India. The company would also have to hand over user data when required by authorities.

WhatsApp’s statement this week criticizes the regulations not for putting an undue burden on the company but for demanding actions that are technically impossible.

“What is contemplated by the rules is not possible today, given the end-to-end encryption that we provide,” said a WhatsApp spokesperson.

Controversy about WhatsApp usage in India has damaged the company’s image globally and has forced it to change the app’s features to make rumors harder to spread. The latest regulations come partly in anticipation of the election in which WhatsApp is sure to play a significant role in political campaigning.

If the law passes, it could also help set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the world. Australia recently passed a law forcing tech companies to help the government decrypt some encrypted communications. The Indian proposal is seen as more far-reaching, and would make WhatsApp’s encryption impossible.

Civil society groups like the Internet Freedom Foundation have also warned that the law goes too far in trying to stop social-media rumors.

The Indian showdown echoes previous data privacy fights. In 2013, the Indian government won a years-long fight with BlackBerry and gained access to user messages; in 2016, the FBI and Apple had a public showdown because the FBI wanted to hack a terrorism suspect’s phone.

The new Indian regulations could go into force in the next few weeks.