NEW DELHI: In a significant decision, the Supreme Court agreed on Monday to examine whether Facebook’s access to details of calls, messages, photographs and documents exchanged by 160 million Indian users of WhatsApp violated citizens’ right to privacy.
The court sought responses from Facebook, WhatsApp, Centre and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), and also sought the assistance of attorney general Mukul Rohatgi keeping in mind the constitutional question raised by two petitioners.
Taking on Facebook Inc, WhatsApp and Facebook India Online Services Pvt Ltd are engineering student Karmanya Singh Sareen, 19, and law student Shreya Sethi, 22.
In a David vs Goliath litigation, legal luminary Harish Salve argued for the minnows. He said WhatsApp had become a utility service for exchange of messages, calls and documents for a huge population. This warranted a direction from the SC to the Centre to regulate WhatsApp, now owned by Facebook, to prevent it from accessing data created by citizens and disseminated through their medium.
A bench of Chief Justice J S Khehar and Justice D Y Chandrachud was initially hesitant to entertain the petition. “Isn’t WhatsApp free? When the service is free and the user has the option of opting out from using the services, how can they be restrained from accessing the data sent through the medium created by them? It is a facility extended to you free of cost, take it or leave it,” it said.
Salve carefully invoked the citizen’s right to speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19 and right to privacy under Article 21 of the Constitution and said free messaging, call or video call services provided by WhatsApp had become a public utility service.
The bench asked Salve to be ready to argue the matter in full during the long summer vacation starting from May 11. The CJI also hinted at the matter being placed before a constitution bench.