The tussle over an individual’s right to privacy vis-a-vis the state’s duty to identify and punish wrongdoers has taken an interesting turn. The management of WhatsApp, the messaging application used by 53 crore Indians, has gone to court against the Indian Government guidelines under which digital media companies are sought to be regulated. Citing user privacy, WhatsApp has taken the moral high ground. The new rules state, among other things, that digital media companies such as WhatsApp must disclose the identity of the ‘first originator of information’ when the government seeks it. WhatsApp contends that in order to comply with the new rules, it would have to break the end-to-end encryption that ensures user privacy, undermining people’s right to privacy.
But there’s much more to the issue than just user privacy. The new user policy of WhatsApp, introduced earlier this year, allows it to share an individual’s information — generated when a user interacts with a business account on WhatsApp — with its parent company, Facebook, and other group firms. The idea is for Facebook to use this data to its financial benefit. In other parts of the world, such as Europe, users can refuse to allow WhatsApp to share their data — in India, this option is not given to the users. WhatsApp bends to the rules of the European Union because they have a data protection law in place there — in India, such a law has been in the works for two years but it is yet to see the light of day. This has enabled WhatsApp to discriminate against Indian users.
Over the last few years, after several cases of mob violence following rumours disseminated over WhatsApp, the company has attempted to arrest spread of misinformation. In a significant judgment in 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that individual privacy is a fundamental right, except when ‘legality, necessity and proportionality’ all outweigh it; digital media companies, thus, must disclose the identity of those causing or abetting crime through rumours or hate speech. Free speech advocates, however, fear that the government could use this provision to stifle dissent or criticism of its policies. Seeing the track record of the governments, it is a legitimate fear. Among these competing interests, a fair balance must be brought through debate, negotiation and a new law.