WhatsApp is facing pressure in India to let authorities trace and read the encrypted messages of its more than 200 million Indian users in a new attempt at constraining global tech giants.
India’s telecommunications regulator has asked for feedback on new rules that—in the name of national security—could force “over the top” services such as WhatsApp, which use mobile operators’ infrastructure, to allow the government access to users’ messages.
At the same time India’s Information Technology Ministry has proposed new intermediary guidelines that would force WhatsApp and others to trace messages and remove objectionable content within 24 hours.
WhatsApp—which has more users in India than in any other country—has “pushed back on government attempts to ban or weaken end-to-end encryption and will continue to do so,” said a person familiar with the company’s thinking.
The public and the tech companies have until later this month to respond to both sets of proposed rules.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India will submit its recommendations for new rules to the Department of Telecommunications for further consideration, though it doesn’t have to follow the suggestions, analysts said. The Information Technology Ministry could choose to implement and enforce the new rules as early as next month, analysts said.
Technology companies argue that they are obligated to protect their customers’ privacy and that demands from investigators would be impossible to satisfy. They say the protection of communication platforms is key for freedom of speech and has helped the global internet to flourish by enabling commerce and communications.
“It’s entirely aimed at WhatsApp,” Neha Dharia, director of strategy at London-based research and consulting firm DMMI, said of the government’s moves. “They are the largest messaging service in the country, and growing.”
WhatsApp, which Facebook acquired in 2014 for $22 billion, has been increasing its efforts to produce revenue. India is where the company introduced its first mobile-payments feature, which it hopes to roll out beyond the test phase.
Legions of Indians have flocked to WhatsApp’s service because it allows easy smartphone messaging without a complicated sign-up process. Its popularity has put it squarely in the sights of regulators and critics who say it is being used to spread rumors that can spark violence. More than 20 people were killed last year on the back of rumors spread through WhatsApp. In response, the company introduced restrictions on the number of groups to which messages can be forwarded.
Internet use in India has exploded in the past two years as the price of data has fallen, with
investing $5 billion to expand its operations in the nation and
acquiring India’s largest homegrown e-commerce firm for $16 billion.
Indian policy makers, however, have been looking for ways to tamp down global tech giants’ influence, examining methods China has used to protect domestic startups and take control of citizens’ data. New Delhi tightened restrictions last month on foreign e-commerce companies operating in the country.
The Indian Information Technology Ministry’s intermediary guidelines could also affect Facebook Inc. and
Analysts say that if they are enforced, the companies might need to more closely monitor material to respond to government requests more quickly.
A spokesman for the Internet and Mobile Association of India, an industry group that represents both companies, said the group is consulting with its members.
A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment. A Twitter spokeswoman said the company looks forward to “continuing engagement” with India’s government.
“Our hope is that after this robust public consultation process any changes to the intermediary guidelines in India strike a careful balance that protects important values such as freedom of expression,” she said.
The U.S. Congress has rejected a push by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Justice to require tech companies to create a back door, circumventing devices’ encryption. But Australia passed tough new encryption laws last month, giving police access to data.
In Vietnam, a new cybersecurity law which went into effect this year requires internet companies to quickly comply with government demands to remove content it doesn’t like.
Write to Newley Purnell at newley.purnell @wsj.com