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India Retracts Proposal on Encryption for Social Media Data After Outcry

Responding to a chorus of criticism, Indian officials on Tuesday hastily withdrew a draft policy on encryption that would have required users of social media and messaging applications to save plain-text versions of their messages for 90 days so that 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 mobilized large networks of online activists during his party's campaigns.

The government issued a statement Tuesday saying the draft proposing that users save messages for three months had been withdrawn, as officials hurried to distance themselves from the idea.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 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 onto another device," said 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 cellphones with very little storage space, said Nikhil Pahwa, the editor of, which covers digital media 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."

Mr. Pahwa said the proposal resembled one that requires telecom operators to keep records of text messages for 90 days.

An official in the Communications Ministry, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news 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, like 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 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 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 Bharatiya Janata Party's national spokeswoman, Shaina Nana Chudasama, better known here as Shaina NC, 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."

[Source: By Ellen Barry, The New York Times, New Delhi, 22Sep15]

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small logoThis document has been published on 24Sep15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.