India Reportedly Plans to Force Social Media Companies to Trace User Messages

By Novak Bozovic / January 22, 2020

In the last six months, we’ve seen worrisome reports coming from India about the country’s intention to control tech giants and potentially endanger the privacy of Internet users. For example, recent protests have resulted in Internet connectivity disruptions, which was followed by the announcement of India’s face recognition program. The country has also expressed its stance toward YouTube and Google by forcing them to remove copyright-infringing content without DMCA notices. And now, there are reports on this country planning to force social media giants to trace user messages.

As reported by TechCrunch and Economic Times, the Indian government is planning on implementing new regulations related to social media content. More precisely, this suggested change says that law enforcement agencies will have to produce a court order to force social media giants to identify users who are posting 'problematic' content. This proposition is expected to be finalized by the end of the month and should affect social media intermediaries with more than 5 million registered users in India. We’re talking here about companies and services such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp, TikTok, and plenty more.

The problem with this request, as privacy advocates claim, is that it can be easily misused. By imposing the requirement of tracing their users, social media companies will need to fundamentally change the way they operate. At the moment, the majority of these companies use end-to-end encryption to guarantee the privacy of their users. In other words, these companies don’t collect personal data and they have no way of decrypting the messages sent by their users. To be able to identify certain individuals, these companies will need to replace end-to-end encryption with a less privacy-friendly option.

There are also other interesting tidbits to be found in this new proposition. If these new regulations are implemented, tech companies could be forced to collect phone numbers of their users – which will need to be re-verified at least once a year. In addition, the government is still pushing for the requirement forcing social media companies to have a permanent registered office in India, as well as a nodal officer whose duties would include coordinating with law enforcement agencies round the clock.

It’s also useful to mention that these new regulations will affect social media platforms primarily. At the moment, email services are exempted, along with Web browsers, search engines, or cloud storage solutions. However, considering that soon-to-be-proposed regulations target services that 'enable online interaction between two or more users and allowing them to create, share, or upload information', this leaves plenty of space for additional types of online services to be included in the future.

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