WhatsApp has reportedly sued the Indian government, after it passed new online laws that the Facebook division believes could allow authorities to conduct mass surveillance and undermine users’ privacy.

India’s new IT laws to regulate content on social networking platforms and streaming services, were passed in February, but are due to come into effect on Wednesday.

It is worth noting that WhatsApp and Indian officials have been clashing for a few months now. In March India’s competition watchdog ordered an investigation into WhatsApp privacy policy update.

The government in India had already decided to quiz the firm over the change in January.

New law

But now WhatsApp has decided on Wednesday to file a lawsuit in the High Court of Delhi, against the Indian government, the Guardian reported.

The messaging service argued that India’s new “traceability” rules, which required technology companies to hand over details about senders of private messages, violated citizens’ constitutional right to privacy.

India is WhatsApp’s largest market with 530 million users, but the messaging platform reportedly says the new law will “severely undermine” the privacy of its users.

It is understood the new laws give the Indian government greater power to monitor online activity, including on encrypted apps like WhatsApp and Signal.

The new laws state that encryption has to be removed from WhatsApp in India and messages would have to be put into a “traceable” database. The government would then be able to identify and take action against the sender if any content was ruled “unlawful”, the Guardian reported.

“Some governments are seeking to force technology companies to find out who sent a particular message on private messaging services. This concept is called ‘traceability’,” WhatsApp reportedly said in an online statement.

“WhatsApp is committed to doing all we can to protect the privacy of people’s personal messages, which is why we join others in opposing traceability.”

Mass surveillance?

A lawyer for WhatsApp reportedly told the Delhi high court:

“A government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance,” said the lawyer. “In order to trace even one message, services would have to trace every message. There is no way to predict which message Indian government would want to investigate in the future.”

The new Indian laws also require social media companies to remove content within 36 hours of a legal order.

These companies also have to appoint an Indian-based “compliance officer” to deal with any complaints.

The lawsuit by WhatsApp is thought to be one of the first times it has sued a national government.

That said, WhatsApp in 2015 and 2016 clashed with the Brazilian government over privacy, which resulted in the messaging service being shut down on multiple occasions in that country.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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