Intermediary guidelines might infringe on privacy

This article was first published in Deccan Chronicle.

If you try to keep up to date with the tech policy debates in India, intermediary liability is one of those few topics you cannot escape. In very oversimplified terms, the debate here is whether companies like Facebook should be held accountable for the content that is posted on them.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) came up with proposed changes to the intermediary guidelines back in December 2018. Since then, discourse around the topic has been rife and the new, finalised guidelines are speculated to come out in the next few weeks.

So when Bloomberg reported that MeitY is expected to put out the new rules later this month without ‘any major changes’, speculation around the guidelines was replaced by concern.

One of the most contentious clauses of the intermediary guidelines was to make messages and posts traceable to their origins. That would mean WhatsApp would need to use its resources to track where a message was originating from and then report that to the government.

As The Verge puts it, tech companies could essentially be required to serve as deputies of the state, conducting investigations on behalf of law enforcement, without so much as a court order.

That is deeply troubling. In contemporary India we have either begun to take secure messaging for granted or just do not think about how secure our communications are today.

Here context matters. More often than not, when I talk about privacy and end to end encryption, I get glazed eyes. That is understandable. People find it hard to understand how encryption impacts their lives. But humor me in a thought experiment. As you read this, take a look around you. Take a good look at the person physically closest to you at this moment and ask yourself whether you would be okay with disabling the security on your phone and giving it to them for three days. If the thought of doing that makes you even slightly uncomfortable, you now understand why privacy matters.

Using the new rules, privacy is now going to be chipped away for anyone in India who uses WhatsApp (or any other end to end encrypted service). Add to that the fact that India today does not have the strongest of institutions. The issue on whether NaMo TV was a governance tool or a political one taught us that. So if there is anything that the political climate tells us today is that there is a very real chance that these guidelines can and will be used for political gain.

The other side to the story also is that these are intermediary guidelines and do not apply to just platforms. Intermediary is a broader term and encompasses not just platforms such as Facebook, Telegram, or Signal, but also cloud service providers, ISPs and even cybercafés.

Not all of these players have equal access to information when ordered by law enforcement agencies to disclose it. In a consultation report released by Medianama, it listed instances of harassment of intermediaries.

According to the report, ISPs claimed to live in a constant situation of threat and made to feel like criminals for running their businesses. During raids, people and their families were often asked to part with their phones and electronics, along with access to their passwords. In fact, according to the report, when a cloud service provider for an app in Andhra Pradesh was approached by the Police with a request for information, it had to go out of business being unable to comply. Not all intermediaries are created equal and these guidelines do not acknowledge that.

But the broader problem I see here is that there is no problem statement here. What these guidelines are trying to address is not clear. If the agenda is for the law enforcement agencies to information on digital communications (and that is essential to maintain law and order), it does not make sense to do it through these means. There are international provisions that India can and should resort to address this (CLOUD Act in particular).

Once we go down this route, there is a non-zero chance that intermediaries such as WhatsApp might stop providing their services in India. Especially since if they comply, it will set precedent for other countries to follow India in their approach to breaking encryption. This could end up causing these intermediaries to serve as government lieutenants. Regardless of what platform we choose to communicate on, we need to value privacy going forward. If you disagree with the idea, now might be a great time to unlock your phone and hand your phone over to the person physically closest to you.

Using the new rules, privacy is now going to be chipped away for anyone in India who uses any end to end encrypted service.

Intermediary is a broad term and encompasses not just platforms but also cloud service providers, ISPs and even cybercafés.

The writer is a research analyst at The Takshashila Institution All views are the author’s own.