Experts Worry as Indian Govt Wants WhatsApp Chats to be Tracked

Being able to trace origins of messages on platforms like WhatsApp will be a huge setback for a user’s privacy.

Tech News
3 min read
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The government Monday said it proposes to bring changes in IT rules to curb misuse of social media and online platforms, but the opposition termed the move as violation of privacy of individuals and an attempt to convert India into a "nanny state".

The IT Ministry released draft amendments, which suggest social media and online platforms would need to enable tracing of originators of information when required by government agencies that are legally authorised.

"The intermediary shall enable tracing out of such originators of information on its platform as may be required by government agencies who are legally authorised," says the proposed amendment.

"The intermediary (social media platform) shall deploy technology-based automated tools or appropriate mechanisms, with appropriate controls for proactively identifying and removing or disabling public access to unlawful information or content," the draft amendment said.


The opposition charged the government of "violating" the privacy of individuals and converting India into a "nanny state" through these amendments.

The Congress said if these amendments were cleared, there would be a tremendous expansion in the power of the "big brother" government on ordinary citizens, "reminiscent of eerie dictatorships".

Experts also warned that amendments, which would allow traceability of "unlawful content", invade personal privacy and free speech.

Cyberlaw expert Pavan Duggal said that some of the changes planned are akin to India's own anti-encryption law.

Being able to trace origins of messages  on platforms like WhatsApp will be a huge setback for a user’s privacy.
WhatsApp makes sure your messages are secure, no matter what the format is. 
(Photo: The Quint)

The proposed changes in rules will place social media platforms – even those like WhatsApp which promise users privacy and encryption – firmly under the government lens, requiring them to deploy tools to "identify" and curb unlawful content, while following stricter due-diligence practices.

Traceability of originators of content had been a long-standing demand of the government, ever since rumours circulated on WhatsApp incited cases of mob-lynching. The messaging platform itself has, so far, resisted identification of originators of rogue messages citing user privacy and encryption.


The amendments, which come ahead of the general polls next year, propose that platforms would also have to inform users to refrain from hosting, uploading or sharing any content that is blasphemous, obscene, defamatory, "hateful or racially, ethnically objectionable".

Users would be asked to guard against hosting or sharing information that violates any law, deceives or misleads receivers about the origin of messages that are grossly offensive or menacing in nature, or those which threaten national security.

IT ministry officials held a meeting last week with senior executives of Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and other companies to discuss the proposed changes in the Information Technology (IT) rules, and the entire debate has now been opened to public for feedback by January 15.

However, IT experts remained wary of the proposed changes saying that the amendments will invade personal privacy and free speech, and may lead to censorship.

Nikhil Pahwa, a digital rights activist, opined that the changes mooted to the IT Act are "harmful" for citizens, democracy and free speech. The requirement for platforms to proactively take down content will lead to censorship of speech, Pahwa added.

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