While Facebook sees India as a key element in its future expansion strategy, it may now be on a course to face significant roadblocks in that approach, with the company clashing with the Indian Government on several fronts, all relating to data tracking, and the impacts of such within WhatsApp, the most popular messaging app in the nation.
As reported by Reuters:
“[WhatsApp’s] case asks the Delhi High Court to declare that one of the new IT rules is a violation of privacy rights in India’s constitution since it requires social media companies to identify the “first originator of information” when authorities demand it.”
The new ‘first originator’ regulation relates to criminal investigations, and stipulates that social media and messaging platforms would need to provide information on the messaging activity of individual users that have been ‘credibly accused of wrongdoing’ at the Government’s request. Which WhatsApp says is simply not possible, because all of its message information is end-to-end encrypted, and by design, there’s no way to break that code or offer ‘back door’ access for such purpose.
WhatsApp has provided an in-depth response to the request for ‘traceability’ on its blog:
“Traceability requires messaging services to store information that can be used to ascertain the content of people’s messages, thereby breaking the very guarantees that end-to-end encryption provides. In order to trace even one message, services would have to trace every message.”
Because WhatsApp can’t know, of course, which messages will be requested for such in retrospect, so the very nature of the process violates WhatsApp’s offering, which, it says, it simply cannot, and will not adhere to.
Which will no doubt put it on a collision course with the Indian Government – though both parties are not alone in their respective requests.
For social platforms, the Indian Government’s new laws, and its increased enforcement actions, sparked by what it labels misinformation online, have already seen it put increased pressure on Twitter and other apps as it seeks to quell public dissent and criticism over its handling of the pandemic. The new regulations will further strain those relationships, and force all platforms to assess just how much information they’re willing to share with the Indian Government, based on its increased requirements.
But then again, India is not the only nation seeking back door access into WhatsApp, and other messaging tools, for criminal investigations.
Back in 2019, when Facebook announced its longer-term plan to integrate its messaging apps, and offer full encryption in Messenger and Instagram Direct, in addition to WhatsApp, government representatives from the US, UK and Australia co-signed an open letter to Facebook which called on the company to abandon the proposal, arguing that it would:
“…put our citizens and societies at risk by severely eroding capacity to detect and respond to illegal content and activity, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism, and foreign adversaries’ attempts to undermine democratic values and institutions, preventing the prosecution of offenders and safeguarding of victims.”
The representatives from each region called for Facebook to provide, at the least, ‘backdoor access’ for official investigations, which Facebook has repeatedly refused.
Now Facebook is once again opposing such access, which, in WhatsApp’s case, is particularly important, because as we saw with the recent backlash against its proposed new data sharing changes, which sparked a flood of users downloading Signal and Telegram instead, WhatsApp users are highly sensitive about any data sharing change, in any respect.
Opening up a back door, for any purpose, could well be a death blow for the app, at least in certain regions.
Which is why its legal action makes sense – but as noted, that will further strain relations between Indian authorities and Facebook. And as we’ve seen with TikTok, the Indian Government will ban an app outright, no matter how popular it is, if it feels it needs to act.
Could that happen to WhatsApp, which has some 530 million users in the region?
That would be a devastating blow for Facebook’s long-term strategic plans.
That’s why the stakes are so high in this new legal battle, and it could have major impacts, in a range of ways, for The Social Network.
It’ll be worth keeping tabs on the progress here, if Facebook does indeed push ahead with a full legal challenge, and where that leaves its future plans for WhatsApp and India repectively.