The Supreme Court on Monday asked the Centre to file its reply on a plea alleging that WhatsApp is not complying with the Indian laws including RBI’s mandate for appointing a grievance officer. The PIL also alleged that the instant messaging service is not complying with tax and other related laws.
A bench led by Justice R F Nariman granted more time to the Centre to file the reply after additional solicitor general Maninder Singh said that various issues have been raised in the petition and the ministries of finance, home affairs, law and justice and electronic and information technology need time to file their response.
Earlier in August, the court had also sought response from Trai and Whats App Inc as to why the the instant messaging platform should be allowed to proceed with its payment service until it complied with the RBI provisions that mandate appointing a grievance officer.
Senior counsel Arvind Datar, appearing for WhatsApp, told the bench that the PIL filed by an NGO, Centre for Accountability and Systemic Change (CASC), has become infructuous as it has already appointed a grievance officer for India.
However, the NGO said that the grievance officer is not based in India. WhatsApp being a foreign company has no office or servers in India, thus is obligated to have a one before it intends to run payments service here, it said.
“Moreover, it is also required to have a grievance officer for users in India. Yet, it is being allowed to continue with its payments and other services without any check,” the plea claimed.
“Companies like Facebook Inc and Google Inc have appointed Grievance Officer for users in India, but WhatsApp has not.
However, the Grievance Officer of Facebook sits in Ireland and the Grievance Officer of Google sits in USA and are thus rendered ineffective. The Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011 have been notified for more than 7 years, yet the government has not been able to get intermediaries to comply with the Indian laws,” said the PIL.
Seeking to restrain the platform from proceeding with its payment service unless it fully complied with the RBI provisions, CASC said that to open a bank account, a customer needs to comply with KYC norms laid down by the RBI and various other formalities.
Pointing to rumours about various internet-based crimes, it claimed that the growth of such incidents was directly proportional to the growth of the user base of messaging services like WhatsApp and to make WhatsApp accountable, it must be directed to comply with Indian law and appoint grievance officer who address grievance of consumers and also co-ordinate with investigating agencies.
WhatsApp reportedly has over 20 crore active users in India and almost one million people are “testing” its payments service. India is one of the largest bases for the Facebook-owned company that has over 1.5 billion users globally.
The petition also alleged that the social media giant does not comply with tax and other laws of India, but its reach was such that it is used by everyone, be it a commoner or even the judges of the apex court.
The plea said that every user has a number on WhatsApp but the messaging platform has no number through which its user can contact it for any grievance redressal.
In response to the Centre’s concerns over regulating fake news, WhatsApp recently introduced a new feature that indicated which messages were forwards.
However, the CASC said that that WhatsApp’s move to forward messages to only five people at a time puts India at an unequal footing “as rest of the users worldwide can forward a message to twenty people at a time. Moreover, the step is also an eyewash, as the limit on forwards is only the “media-based content”, ie videos, audio and GIF, and not on usual text messages,” the petition added.