23 September 2015 14:31:36 IST

Under fire, govt withdraws draft encryption policy

Will come out with a fresh draft with more clarity, says Prasad

Facing a backlash from various quarters, including Internet activists on social media, the Government withdrew its draft encryption policy overnight as concerns grew over intrusions into privacy. The Department of Electronics and Information Technology will now come out with a fresh draft.

Observers see this withdrawal as a damage-control exercise to ensure that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley is not affected. There were fears that the chiefs of tech giants there would ask the Prime Minister, himself an avid Twitter user, embarrassing questions on the policy.

During his US visit, Modi is scheduled to meet Apple CEO Tim Cook and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, among others. He will also address India-US Startup Konnect, an event to showcase the strengths of India’s start-up ecosystem.

The now-withdrawn draft restricted users from deleting their messages — SMS, e-mail, WhatsApp, Viber, Line, Google Chat, Yahoo Messenger and the like — for 90 days.

The messages had to be kept in a plain text format and had to be produced on demand to security agencies.

It also wanted all vendors of encryption products to “register their products with the designated agency of the government”. The policy proposed imprisonment for failure to store and produce on demand the encrypted messages sent from any mobile device or computer. It applied to everyone, including government departments, academic institutions and citizens, and for all kinds of communications, official or personal.

Defending the Centre at a press conference, Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister for Information Technology and Telecom, said that a draft encryption policy is not the final view of the government.

“I personally feel that some of the expressions used in the draft are giving rise to uncalled-for misgivings. Therefore, I have written to the Department to withdraw that draft, rework it properly and thereafter put it in the public domain,” he said.

In a bid to smoothen ruffled feathers, he said that the encryption policy was not aimed at social media messaging platforms used by the common man. Instead, he said there was a need for a check on cyber space because of the growing number of online transactions.

Opposition criticism Modi’s opponents did not let go of this opportunity to criticise the BJP-led government. The Congress derided the draft policy as a totalitarian, misconceived and failed attempt by the Modi regime to override all sense of individual ‘freedom of speech and expression’ and encroach upon the ‘right to privacy’ of communication.

This is not the first time encryption has been an issue. A few years ago, under the UPA regime, government agencies wanted encryption keys to intercept BlackBerry Messenger service messages, threatening to ban the service in India if the company did not comply.