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WhatsApp sues India as Modi’s draconian laws for digital media kick in

Critics say that Modi and his political supporters want desperately to throttle companies like Twitter and Facebook to prevent real news and discuss the pandemic from reaching Indians and the world.
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Written by Rajiv Rao, Contributor on
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Image: Getty Images

You may have heard that WhatsApp sued the Indian government yesterday at New Delhi's High Court for issuing new laws that will compromise the privacy of its users if enforced.

The Indian government introduced these laws to regulate digital media in February 2021, giving all players three months to comply with them.

Issued on February 25, they actually kicked in this Wednesday thanks to a three-month grace period and since inception, it has been regarded by observers as some of the most draconian laws in Indian history.

In WhatsApp's specific case, the laws would require the messaging app to remove its trademark end-to-end encryption, which keeps private communications secure. Messages of concern could be put into a "traceable" database after which action could be taken against the originators.

WhatsApp maintained in its lawsuit that the new laws are unconstitutional and violate citizens' right to privacy in India, pointing to a pertinent 2017 Supreme Court ruling.

"Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that a requirement to 'trace' private messages would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse. WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people's personal messages and we will continue to do all we can within the laws of India to do so," a Whatsapp spokesperson said in a statement.

EXPOSED BY THE DIGITAL WORLD

If end-to-end encryption is to go by the wayside, this will be a terrifying prospect for many Indians, especially for those who use social media to express their opinions on politics and society.

70-something activists and poets, 20-something women protesting against climate change and labour laws, Dalits, farmers, a stand-up comic, poster-makers, and a legion of young Muslim men amongst many others have already been imprisoned for either their religious affiliation or for daring to stand up for an idea that the government doesn't like.

It hasn't helped either that for the past seven years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tenure, Indian media has acted as a loyal servant of the government. 

But the last few months of the pandemic have turned things topsy-turvy. Suddenly, there's a torrent of horrific images of the COVID crisis in India that are being sent to people everywhere in the digital world.

From desperate individuals begging for scarce oxygen tanks for their dying relatives to dead bodies choking up crematoriums and banks of rivers, social media has become the only source of reliable information about what is going on in India.

The medium has also become a potentially life-saving bulletin board for people on the hunt for COVID resources in the glaring absence of assistance from the government.

Along with this has been a torrent of scathing indictments of Modi on social media platforms about his claim that coronavirus has been vanquished in India, as well as his decision to hold over 20 election rallies attended by huge crowds in February, and his decision to endorse the running of India's largest religious fair where close to 100 million people attended despite the pandemic.

Almost overnight, Modi's carefully manicured image of an able administrator has begun to crumble in large part due to social media.

THE NEW LAWS OF THE LAND

Enter the new rules, introduced by the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021,that effectively bring social media and digital news organisations to heel.

With the new changes, sub-section (1) of Section 79 of the IT Act protects social media companies and web services as "intermediaries", meaning they are not legally responsible for posts. 

In return for this, however, platforms have to appoint a Chief Compliance Officer, a resident grievance officer, and a nodal contact person that are to be available 24-hour hours of the day to law enforcement agencies, if they so wish to contact them. The companies also have to publish a compliance report every month that logs details of every user complaint and action taken.

In addition -- and this is what has prompted WhatsApp's lawsuit -- social media platforms are compelled to track the originator of messages if the powers that be ask them to.

Failure to comply with these rules could result in the chief compliance officer of these companies facing arrest.

THE DESCENT OF DISSENT

WhatsApp's lawsuit is a shocker, especially considering its parent Facebook has largely aided the Modi government.

It famously allowed incendiary communal hate, flowing from a BJP politician targeting New Delhi's Muslim community, to flourish on its platform hours before a full-fledged riot that killed over 60 people, with most of those people being Muslim.

Its policy head also happened to be a Modi acolyte and someone who coached Modi's digital teams during his election campaigns. Mark Zuckerburg wasn't afraid to hug him, either. Furthermore, Facebook's WhatsApp is in bed with Modi's pal Mukesh Ambani's, with WhatsApp and Reliance Jio Mart working together to enhance Reliance's sprawl.

Meanwhile, Twitter has been forced to block accounts, more recently because of images or posts dealing with the unfolding COVID tragedy in India, and before that, because people were tweeting about the farmer's protests. Arguably India's last source of reliable media, due to being independent and digital, social media platforms are now being persecuted by raids and lawsuits.

It is a paranoid and vengeful reign that has awarded India the rank of 142 in the world on press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders, which places it just three spots ahead of Myanmar.

A few days ago, Modi appeared on television teary-eyed, choking up about India's catastrophic deaths from COVID. 

Since that appearance, Indians on social media have had a fine time roasting him for it.

But how long will they be able to continue doing so?

The answer to that may partly lie in the $100 billion trade that India's IT services firms ply in the US. It may also have something to do with rural India, which is only just discovering the true extent of Modi's responsibility behind the COVID deaths in India.

If Modi can convince these two constituents that he is still the best man for the job, Indian dissenters may have to get comfortable with the confines of a jail cell or just keep their mouths shut.

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