As the tussle between the Centre and messaging platform WhatsApp over new IT rules escalates, an official of a digital civil rights organisation has said that there is very little clarity on what exactly is the problem that the government wants to address.
"If you are worried about somebody breaking into houses, you don't go and say the police should have a key to access every single house. In effect, that is what the government is asking for when it is saying, they want to be able to act to undermine encryption, and secure messaging because they have policing concerns," said Raman Jit Singh Chima, senior international counsel and Asia Pacific policy director at Access Now.
The digital rights activist's remark comes against the backdrop of a lawsuit filed by WhatsApp against the Centre over one of its new IT rules that require social media firms to identify the 'first originator' of a message when ordered by the government.
WhatsApp's contention is that tracing chats is equivalent to keeping fingerprints of every single message. That, it says, would break its end-to-end encryption policy, and also undermine people's right to privacy. However, the government has asserted that it respects citizens' right to privacy and doesn't intend to violate it.
"Such requirements are only in case when the message is required for prevention, investigation or punishment of very serious offences," the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) said in a statement.
The Ministry has also pointed out that no fundamental right, including right to privacy, was absolute and is subject to reasonable restrictions.
Chima strongly rejected the comment and said, "That's, unfortunately, a red herring." He explained that judges have said the government can infringe upon a fundamental right in a limited space provided by the Constitution and by Indian courts to the government.
"But that doesn't mean the government can intrude upon a fundamental right at any point in time. It needs to follow careful standards, including taking measures only under a law ideally, or clear legal authority passed by Parliament, in a manner that they established a reason why they have to intrude upon the right."
Access Now also disagreed with the government's claim that the new rules will not impact users or the functioning of end-to-end encrypted messaging services.
"In order to implement traceability to identify the 'first originator' of content, end-to-end encrypted services will have to fundamentally re-design their architecture to eliminate this feature. As a direct result, the core promise of privacy and security of such messaging platforms will be compromised, leading to a chilling effect on free expression," it said in a statement.
According to Access Now, the new IT rules treat all users as potential criminal suspects which is against legal principles and international human rights standards. The provisions in the rules are devoid of any material safeguards against abuse, which is a necessary element of the test, Chima highlighted.
On May 27, microblogging site Twitter flagged concerns regarding the new rules and hit out at the "intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service". The remark seemed to be in reference to a "raid" at Twitter's office in Delhi and Gurugram this week in connection with the alleged "Congress toolkit" case.
Meanwhile, WhatsApp's parent company Facebook has agreed to comply with the new guidelines, but it said it would continue to hold discussions with the government over a few issues.
First Published: IST