The landscape of IT rules and regulations in India is changing rapidly. As the pandemic has forced the nation into their homes, the need for digital privacy and online protection has increased. The question is where do you draw the line?
A new set of IT rules that have come into effect require social media platforms to appoint a resident grievance officer, chief compliance officer and a nodal contact person. It also requires the platforms to submit monthly reports on the number of complaints they received from users and the resolution of the said complaints.
The new rules also state that social media platforms have to make provisions that allow the government to trace the origin of flagged messages which means any message that is deemed against the laws of state can be traced to its point of origin.
WhatsApp takes India to court
As per a court filing seen by Reuters, WhatsApp has argued that the new provision for tracing messages can be seen as an invasion of privacy and the company said that the government had exceeded its legal powers by actioning rules that would require it break its 'end-to-end encryption' on text messages.
On one side, these new laws can be seen as totalitarian enabling the Indian government to put pressure on social media outlets to take down posts or messages that it deems unacceptable.
Recently, The Delhi police visited Twitter's Indian office to serve them a notice in connecting with the "Congress toolkit" row which alleged that the rival party had spread fake information on social media that sought to tarnish the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, criticizing the way he handled the COVID-19 outbreak in India.
After Congress made it clear that their party was not involved and the media was 'fake', Twitter flagged tweets from BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra as "manipulated media".
Friends look at the #CongressToolKit in extending help to the needy during the Pandemic!
More of a PR exercise with the help of “Friendly Journalists” & “Influencers” than a soulful endeavour.
Read for yourselves the agenda of the Congress:#CongressToolKitExposedpic.twitter.com/3b7c2GN0re
— Sambit Patra (@sambitswaraj) May 18, 2021
The tweet continues to carry the manipulated media tag and is still up on the platform for India to see despite the fact that Congress has already filed police complaints against the party.
The government had also pressed the social media platforms to remove certain tweets that it said spread misinformation in times of COVID and criticised the government.
On the flip side of the coin, it is important to remember that social media platforms aren't doing this to protect user data or respect user privacy. That bridge has been burnt long ago.
It is no secret that as internet users, our data is no longer private and is constantly mined and scrutinised to sell us advertisements and products. Another issue is that global standards mandate a method for accountability and traceability for genuine cases of messages that could be considered as an instigation against the country's integrity.
The fact that these companies are rarely transparent on how our data is used and collected also raises the question of accountability. What happens when data breaches occur and our data falls in the wrong hands? Or worse. What happens in cases of identity theft, when our identity is used to solicit illegal apparatus for use against the state? Shouldn't there be a way to pinpoint the source of origin then?
The fact that WhatsApp remains adamant on its new privacy policies that allow Facebook to share and store our messages with business entities tells you that they aren't worried about end-to-end encryption when it comes to making some money. It started out by spamming notifications and outright threatening users that don't abide by the new policy with account deletion till an agreement with the Indian Government was reached to stall the act.
A Facebook spokesperson said that it will maintain its stance on the new user policy until, "the forthcoming PDP (personal data protection) law comes into effect."
For reference the important privacy protection law has been languishing in the Indian Parliament since 2019 and has received yet another extension pushing its implementation back even further.
The current situation we find ourselves in is like walking on barbed wire with one foot while being raked through broken glass on the other. Traceability and accountability are important for any platform but the question is at what cost?