Uproar over Indian encryption law forces government to retreat
NEW DELHI // The Indian government on Tuesday backtracked on a proposed requirement for all messages sent on social media and mobile chatting apps to be saved for several months as a way of defeating encryption technology.
The draft law drew backlash from critics who called it draconian and unworkable, and risked marring prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley this weekend.
The proposed law stipulated that all social media users would have to save plain-text versions of messages for 90 days. Services such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Viber and Google Chat encrypt messages as they are sent between users.
There was widespread outrage online over the threat to privacy and the possibility of prosecution for those who refused to save their communications.
“Some of the expressions used in the draft are giving rise to uncalled-for misgivings,” said communications and information minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, announcing the withdrawal of the draft law. “I have noted some of the concerns.”
The uproar comes just days before Narendra Modi, the prime minister, heads to Silicon Valley where he is to meet technology entrepreneurs to persuade them to invest in India.
Mr Modi is scheduled to meet the chief executives of Microsoft, Google and Apple as well as visit the Facebook campus, where he will address a town-hall meeting with the social media giant’s co-founder Mark Zuckerberg.
The draft policy would have required users of social messaging services to hand over unencrypted copies of their communications at the request of the police.
It would also have required foreign companies using encryption to submit their software to scrutiny by Indian government agencies.
Mr Prasad said the government respects the right to freedom of expression but is also trying to enhance security as the volume of internet communications and other online activity by individuals, government agencies and companies increases enormously.
The government has set an October 16 deadline for public feedback on the law.
Activists point to practical obstacles facing the government even if it were able to access the data.
“It would be a huge risk and a massive target for any hackers,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima of Access Now, a group campaigning for greater internet freedom.
Members of rival political parties also called the proposal a threat to freedom of expression.
Mr Modi has been a keen user of social media such as Twitter and Facebook to conduct diplomacy, congratulate athletes and explain his political agenda to the public.
India has more than 350 million internet users and that number is expected to grow rapidly as more people use smartphones to go online.
* Associated Press and Reuters
Updated: September 22, 2015 04:00 AM