Officials say the aim is to catch criminals and stop the flow of misinformation. The law would almost certainly help with both, but it would risk safety at the same time as it enhanced it — and it would tear apart any semblance of digital privacy. It’s not only Indians who might suffer.
A mandate for filterable, observable and traceable messaging would effectively destroy the end-to-end encryption on platforms that makes conversations visible only to their participants. It’s true that terrorists may rely on this type of protection. But women plagued by intimate-partner violence rely on it, too, to escape abusive husbands or boyfriends. Protesters and the persecuted rely on it to avoid their persecutors. Businesses use it to protect sensitive communications from opportunistic hackers; even governments use it to secure their own information from adversaries.
Companies for whom end-to-end encryption today isn’t an essential part of their model might comply with India’s law, and sacrifice security. Companies for whom it is essential, such as WhatsApp, will likely fight. If they lose, they will have to decide: make separate products for India and for the freer world, make one inferior product for everyone, or stick to their principles and pull out of a massive market?
India’s government should consider other ways to address misinformation on encrypted platforms. One would be to stop spreading misinformation in the first place: It is Mr. Modi’s own party that coordinated a “cyber army” to spread propaganda on WhatsApp before the last election, and an official app dedicated to the prime minister himself that spread a flurry of false content. More systemically, there are limits on forwarding such as those already introduced by WhatsApp. There are other ways to write rules about law enforcement access, too, tailored to what’s technically feasible. India, however, doesn’t seem interested in nuance in this age of aggressive censorship and indefinite Internet shutdowns.
Countries such as China and Russia present unabashedly authoritarian models of Internet governance to the world — and most U.S. firms have declined to play along. India is a harder case: a democracy with a mother lode of users. Yet if companies cave there, they may soon find themselves caving elsewhere.