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India's demand to identify people on chat apps will 'break end-to-end encryption', say digital rights warriors

Announced rules also require fast takedowns of content, online profile verification, and more

After a three-year review process, India has announced strict regulations for instant chat services, social network operators, and video-streaming companies.

Titled "Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021," the red-tape [PDF] creates four big obligations for antisocial media outfits.

One requires messaging services to “enable identification of the first originator of the information” to allow “prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution or punishment of an offence related to sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, or public order.” Meanwhile, those who send or share messages involving sexual violence or child sexual abuse can be identified for the authorities, too.

India’s Internet Freedom Foundation has slammed this traceability requirement, claiming it will be impossible to implement strong end-to-end encryption as a result, and thus could harm privacy. No technical details were given though the thinking appears to be that, as per the rules, the encryption would need to be broken to determine the identity of a message's creator.

The foundation said the requirement “would be a tremendous expansion in the power of the government over ordinary citizens eerily reminiscent of China’s blocking and breaking of user encryption to surveil its citizens.”

The code also requires social media companies appoint a chief compliance officer, a “nodal contact person,” and a “resident grievance officer” to liaise with local authorities and handle citizen complaints. Those officers also get the job of taking down any risqué images within 24 hours, and deleting content as ordered by the government or courts no more than 36 hours after receiving a takedown notice.

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Another requirement states social media companies “shall endeavour” to use automated filters, “or other mechanisms,” to identify any child sexual abuse material. Another requires web platforms to offer users a chance to verify their identities and have their accounts marked as authentic.

The code also sets rules for video-streamers, a topical matter as Amazon Prime is currently being sued over scenes in the drama Tandav that are felt to include disrespectful depictions of Hindu deities. The code requires video streamers to appoint grievance officers, classify programs, verify the age of users so they can only watch age-appropriate content, and adopt India’s codes of conduct governing journalism for any news broadcasts.

Indian politicians have pitched the regulations – which can be created by the central government using section 87 of the Information Technology Act – as ensuring digital giants follow Indian law and respect its culture, while preserving free speech rights.

However, India has lately shut down social networks on the grounds that protests against new farm laws were coordinated online by bad actors or secessionists. Requiring messaging services to identify users has clear potential to help the government to further quell protest.

India’s Internet Freedom Foundation has therefore called for further consultation on the code. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, has presented the rules as a fait accompli. ®

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