Facebook bats for WhatsApp privacy protection

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]HE Madras High Court is currently listening to a case that could affect the privacy rights of 400 million Indian citizens who use the Facebook-owned social media platform Whatsapp.

The division bench of Madras HC comprising Justices S Manikumar and Subramonium Prasad are hearing two writ petitions filed by citizens Antony Clement Rubin and Janani Krishnamurthy asking for mandatory linkage between people’s Aadhaar card – the government’s already controversial biometric ID for Indian citizens – with their Whatsapp accounts.

According to the petitions filed before the Madras DB, Rubin and Krishnamurthy ask the court to link “any email or user accounts” with their Aadhaar numbers. The petitions further say that the petitioners think linkage should be mandatory to curb “the rising instances of humiliation, disgrace and defamation [through] cyber-bullying and other intolerable activities on social media.”

The court will hear the matter on August 21, 2019.

The case, which is the first one in India on user traceability on social media platforms, is central to the issue of privacy, experts say.

The tech company is not going down without a fight. With Senior advocates Kapil Sibal and Arvind Datar as its lawyers, Whatsapp on July 16 filed a report before the Division Bench refusing to bow down to the petitions.

In its 27-page reply to the court, WhatsApp’s counsel Brian Hennessy said, “Requiring WhatsApp to trace originator information is disproportionate to the laudable aim of preventing and detecting crimes, particularly since users can easily migrate to encrypted platforms that do not have such an obligation,” The company further adds, “monitoring and removing content is not possible with an end-to-end encryption.”

Calling the government’s requests “against Section 69A of the IT Act, which requires the government to give notice to that person who posted that content before blocking the content”. It added that such requests are also voided by the Supreme Court’s landmark case striking down Section 66A of the IT Act. Forcing the company to link user data to Adhaar would be dangerous for dissenters, journalists and citizens, says WhatsApp. As it would mean artists, activists could not speak out “without fear of surveillance or retaliation.”

In July 2018, an unverified Whatsapp message about child kidnappers had been the kindling behind a lynch mob in Rainpada village, near Mumbai. The incident resulted in over 45 people killed. The company has been under the government’s glare as reports of violence from across India and the world fuelled by fake news or unverified forwarded messages spread on the platform. The Indian government has been adamant that the app begins to identify the senders of such messages. For a year, Whatsapp refused all the Government’s request.

However, these petitions before the Madras HC Division Bench could force Whatsapp to enfeeble its privacy settings, and the protection it offers to its base of 400 million Indian citizens.

The petitioners were not available for comment at the time of writing this story.

Concerned with the ramifications on fundamental rights, if these petitions being successful, internet rights group Internet Freedom Foundation filed intervention applications.

In its intervention, IFF says a government ID “like Adhaar, which has personal data, if linked to social media ”would result in increased harms to speech by chilling dissenting voices” and “result in more pervasive dossier of social media users which can be available to the highest bidders.”