India’s new social media guidelines could make Signal’s strength its weakness

Waiting for a green light.
Waiting for a green light.
Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Earlier this year, scores of Indians flocked to Signal overnight after WhatsApp announced an update to its privacy policy. Within a fortnight, the app clocked 26.4 million downloads in the country. It was endorsed by magnates abroad and in India, including billionaire Elon Musk, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Indian businessmen Anand Mahindra and Vijay Shekhar Sharma.

But now, India’s new social media guidelines could mean an end to Signal’s success in the country.

As part of the government’s plan to enact greater oversight, social media companies will be obliged to “enable the identification of the first originator” of information on its platforms if required by the authorities, according to the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 released yesterday (Feb. 25).

Most messaging majors will be able to comply with the rules. Whatsapp, which has over 400 million users in India, has said it is “prepared to carefully review, validate and respond to law enforcement requests based on applicable law and policy.” Telegram, too, stores information should the authorities as for it. “If Telegram receives a court order that confirms you’re a terror suspect, we may disclose your IP address and phone number to the relevant authorities,” its website states.

But Signal can’t share any information with regards to traceability because it collects no user data whatsoever. It just stores a phone number and does not link it back to personal information at all.

“Signal will not survive this,” Nikhil Pahwa, digital rights activist and founder of news portal Medianama, said in a panel hosted by journalist Barkha Dutt on her YouTube channel, Mojo Story.

Signal, the non-profit

So far, Signal’s big sell has been the secrecy it offers. Using Signal is like “booking a ticket anonymously, boarding a bus and getting down, and the bus won’t know who boarded,” explained Ankur Bisen, senior vice-president of retail and consumer products at Technopak Advisors.

There’s a possibility it may be able to dodge the government’s bullet because of one caveat. Both WhatsApp and Telegram are enterprises. Signal is not. It’s a non-profit entity that grants and donations. Experts say the government may issue clarifications and amendments for such a case.

Analysts also believe the order, on the whole, will likely be challenged in court.

But if the rules stay as they are, Signal will get the short-end of the stick.

Europe versus India

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), often heralded as the “digital gold standard,” vouches for Signal, calling it the “most secure and private messaging app.” The European Union (EU) has even directed its staff to use it.

In India, privacy—Signal’s strength—doesn’t seem to be the core focus of rule-making.

“In Europe, most regulations and interventions the government and the larger society are talking about are centred around privacy; how do you protect the data,” said Technopak’s Bisen. “Here, we’re talking about how to control, censor, monitor. In the context of Europe and other developed economies, Signal stands to gain but here, it’s the other way around.”