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Huge outcry forces India to backtrack on social media data proposal

NEW DELHI — Responding to a chorus of withering criticism, Indian officials have withdrawn a draft policy on encryption that would have required users of social media and messaging apps to save plain-text versions of their messages for 90 days so they could be shared with the police.

The Indian government has backtracked on a proposed requirement for all messages sent on social media and mobile chatting apps to be saved for 90 days as a way of defeating encryption technology. Photo: AP

The Indian government has backtracked on a proposed requirement for all messages sent on social media and mobile chatting apps to be saved for 90 days as a way of defeating encryption technology. Photo: AP

NEW DELHI — Responding to a chorus of withering criticism, Indian officials have withdrawn a draft policy on encryption that would have required users of social media and messaging apps to save plain-text versions of their messages for 90 days so they could be shared with the police.

The proposal, which many condemned as both draconian and impractical, came as an embarrassment days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels to Silicon Valley to try to attract investment and promote India as an emerging market for digital technology.

Mr Modi is an avid user of social media and has mobilised large networks of online activists during his party’s campaigns.

The government issued a statement on Tuesday saying the draft proposing that users save messages for three months had been withdrawn, as officials hurried to distance themselves from the idea.

“I wish to make it clear that it is just a draft and not the view of the government,” said Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Minister of Communications and Information Technology.

Internet policy activists discovered the draft on a government website late last week and began to lampoon it online as “absurd”. One offered the example of an iPhone, which automatically encrypts messages.

“They can’t intentionally want people to copy and paste every message a person gets on their iPhone on to another device,” said Mr Pranesh Prakash, a policy director at the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore.

The draft, which was put forward by a committee of unidentified experts in the Department of Electronics and Information Technology, also overlooked the fact that most Indians use mobile phones with very little storage space, said Mr Nikhil Pahwa, the editor of MediaNama.com, which covers digital media issues in India.

“It is incomprehensible how they would have expected users to keep their messages in plain-text format,” he said. “And I don’t think that anyone can argue that keeping data in a plain-text format makes it secure.”

An official in the Communications Ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the media, said the expert committee had been convened to formulate a policy on the “phenomenal rise” in encrypted communication over the Internet.

He said the committee had intended to require social media platforms and messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Viber, to save plain-text versions of messages and did not intend to impose that burden on individual users.

“It was interpreted by the netizens as ‘you and I’,” the official said. He added that interpretation was misleading.

But that version of the requirement would also be “outrageous,” Mr Prakash said. For example, WhatsApp uses “end-to-end” encryption and does not save communications between users or have access to plain text, he said.

Mr Prakash said that as officials revised the proposal, the government should reach out to “experts in cryptography and human rights”.

“This is a very crucial combination of three rights: the right to security, the right to freedom of expression, and the right to privacy,” he said.

On television, spokesmen for Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) found themselves debating their counterparts from the opposition Indian National Congress Party, one of whom remarked that “tomorrow they will start demanding that you videograph what has been going on in your bedroom for the past 90 days.”

The BJP’s national spokeswoman, Shaina Nana Chudasama, responded with some exasperation. “I don’t know why we have to have this hue and cry,” she said.

“Our Prime Minister believes in absolute freedom on social media. There is no question of our trying to come down heavily on the freedom of the public at large.” THE NEW YORK TIMES

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