Meta Threatens to Pull WhatsApp From India Over Encryption Battle

Russell Brandom, reporting for Rest of World:

IT rules passed by India in 2021 require services like WhatsApp to maintain “traceability” for all messages, allowing authorities to follow forwarded messages to the “first originator” of the text.

In a Delhi High Court proceeding last Thursday, WhatsApp said it would be forced to leave the country if the court required traceability, as doing so would mean breaking end-to-end encryption. It’s a common stance for encrypted chat services generally, and WhatsApp has made this threat before — most notably in a protracted legal fight in Brazil that resulted in intermittent bans. But as the Indian government expands its powers over online speech, the threat of a full-scale ban is closer than it’s been in years. [...]

It’s not clear how the courts will respond to WhatsApp’s ultimatum, but they’ll have to take it seriously. WhatsApp is used by more than half a billion people in India — not just as a chat app, but as a doctor’s office, a campaigning tool, and the backbone of countless small businesses and service jobs. There’s no clear competitor to fill its shoes, so if the app is shut down in India, much of the digital infrastructure of the nation would simply disappear. Being forced out of the country would be bad for WhatsApp, but it would be disastrous for everyday Indians.

One thing to remember is that this isn’t so much a conflict between what the law demands and what Meta chooses to do, but rather a conflict between what the law demands and the secure-by-design nature of WhatsApp. There is no “traceability” switch that Meta could flip but is choosing not to. They’d have to build a completely new, insecure-by-design, protocol to comply with this law.

See also: A 2022 feature in The Verge on the centrality of WhatsApp to digital life in India.

Monday, 6 May 2024