There has been an ongoing tussle between the popular messaging platform WhatsApp and the Government over the sanctity of encrypted messages. The Meta-owned instant messaging service told the Delhi High Court that it would cease operations in India if compelled to compromise the encryption of messages on its platform.

As a platform, we are saying that if we are told to break encryption, then WhatsApp goes,” the company reportedly asserted. WhatsApp counsel Tejas Karia made the statement during a hearing on the platform’s plea challenging a provision of IT Rules, 2021 for social media intermediaries. The provision requires them to identify the first originator of information to a court or other competent authority.

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WhatsApp Won’t Budge

They stated that it would be untenable for them to continue operations if mandated to break encryption. Karia added that WhatsApp users use the messaging platform because of the privacy it assures and for the end-to-end encryption offering. “There is no such rule anywhere else in the world. Not even in Brazil,” he argued.

According to the tech giant, tracing users’ messages undermines the encryption of content and the privacy of the users. It also violates the users’ fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Indian constitution. “We will have to keep a complete chain and we don’t know which messages will be asked to be decrypted. It means millions and millions of messages will have to be stored for a number of years,” he said. 

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The Government’s Outlook

Despite WhatsApp’s pleas, the IT ministry continues to seek the ability to trace messages on these intermediary platforms. Appearing for the Central Government, counsel Kirtiman Singh said that the idea behind the guidelines was to trace the originator of the messages. 

He emphasised that tracing the messages is the need of the hour and argued that WhatsApp has already faced difficult questions related to this before the US Congress. Meanwhile, the Delhi High Court (HC) said, “…privacy rights were not absolute” and “somewhere balance has to be done.” The next hearing in the case is scheduled on August 14.

As part of its bid to better regulate the internet, the Centre has amended the IT Rules multiple times since they came into force. Big tech giants like Meta, Google and Microsoft are under regulatory scrutiny in multiple cases in India.

WhatsApp end-to-end encryption Government Delhi High Court

Between January and June last year, Indian authorities issued a total of 70,612 content take-down requests across all Meta platforms, of which 63,586 were legal process requests and the rest were ‘emergency disclosure requests’. 

Even social media platform X said it withheld some political posts in the country earlier this month on the orders of the Election Commission of India (ECI). They expressed their disagreement with the takedown orders and called on the poll body to publish all such orders going forward.

What Is End-To-End Encryption?

WhatsApp introduced default end-to-end encryption for all messages exchanged and calls made through the platform in 2016. Encryption is a process wherein messages, once sent by the sender, are converted into secret and complex codes, rendering them unreadable by anyone else. This form of encryption was devised to ensure that only the sender and receiver of the message would be privy to its contents.

Though other platforms such as Signal, iMessage and Telegram also offer this feature, WhatsApp remains the most widely used instant messaging platform in India, with an estimated 400 million users. “The importance of end-to-end encryption in digital communication cannot be overstated,” said Kazim Rizvi, founding director at tech research and policy think tank The Dialogue.

As a pillar of privacy, it shields users from unauthorised surveillance and data breaches, making it a critical feature for apps like WhatsApp and Signal”, he added. Rizvi highlighted that WhatsApp’s “stern” stance of threatening to exit markets that demand transparency in encryption, showcases the global tension between privacy rights and law enforcement needs.

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Even WhatsApp Can’t Read Your Messages

While announcing the encryption feature, WhatsApp founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton said, “No one can see inside that message. Not cybercriminals. Not hackers. Not oppressive regimes. Not even us. End-to-end encryption helps make communication via WhatsApp private – sort of like a face-to-face conversation.” 

WhatsApp added that it does not have the ability to see the content of messages or listen to calls that are end-to-end encrypted. This is because encryption and decryption of messages sent and received on the app occurs entirely on the user’s device. 

Before a message ever leaves your device, it’s secured with a cryptographic lock, and only the recipient has the keys. In addition, the keys change with every single message that’s sent,” explained the tech giant.

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When It All Began – WhatsApp Vs. The Govt.

In 2021, WhatsApp went to the Delhi High Court against new rules that asked instant messaging platforms with more than 50 lakh registered users in India, to reveal the ‘originator’ of messages. WhatsApp’s petition challenged and questioned if these Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, were constitutional.

A spokesperson for WhatsApp had said that “requiring messaging apps to ‘trace’ chats is the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every single message sent on WhatsApp, which would break end-to-end encryption and fundamentally undermines people’s right to privacy”.

While the government maintains that adherence to the IT rules will enable it to trace the origin of fake messages, WhatsApp has refused to give in saying the move will undermine the privacy of users of the platform. Given WhatsApp’s public stand on the issue, a lot of focus is on the tussle between the platform and the government over the IT rules, while it is not clear whether other service providers comply with the rules or not.

Will the Government give up on pushing WhatsApp to break its end-to-end encryption USP or will the app leave the country? Only time will tell. Let’s wait and watch.