The proliferation of fake news on social media platforms and instant messaging apps is not a new phenomenon. Daily, false narratives sparked by a few individuals create havoc across the world.
Governments, too, are not exempt from the ripple effects of misinformation. A recent episode involved the Chief Minister of Tripura. A counterfeit resignation letter bearing the alleged signature of Tripura’s Chief Minister, Manik Saha, quickly spread like wildfire on WhatsApp.
In response to this, a legal battle has ensued between Tripura police and the instant messaging platform owned by Meta. The viral image prompted state police to try and penetrate WhatsApp’s encryption shield, invoking a provision of India’s Information Technology Law. The provision mandates WhatsApp to reveal the origin of the viral message.
What is the provision? The controversial Rule 4(2) of the 2021 Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules permits revealing the identity of the original sender of a message. This rule applies especially if the request is tied to severe crimes like sexual assault or national security threats, and only when approved judicially. This provision is commonly known as the ‘Traceability Rule.’
The Standoff: WhatsApp and the Police Earlier this year in May, utilizing the Traceability Rule, the Tripura police approached a local court, seeking permission to identify the individual who circulated the fake post with Chief Minister Manik Saha’s forged signature.
After months of disputes with Tripura police, WhatsApp knocked on the doors of the Tripura High Court on September 22, requesting the annulment of the traceability order. Meanwhile, the High Court granted a stay on the matter on September 26. Experts opine that the outcome of this landmark case could profoundly impact privacy, social media companies, and law enforcement.