How to meet the man who took WhatsApp to the Supreme Court?

Russian interference in the US elections via Facebook. The Cambridge Analytica data breach. “Fake news” entering the lexicon. Data security and privacy becoming the need of the hour. Mob violence sparked off by rumors and spread via WhatsApp forwards.

Data Localization

A growing drive towards data localization. The past two years have shaken the world, with governments in India and elsewhere sitting up and taking notice of social media and internet companies. More specifically, trying to rein in and regulate them—ensuing in standoffs with Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others. But Virag Gupta is way ahead of the curve.

For at least six years now, Gupta, a Supreme Court lawyer, and others working with him have taken on the likes of Facebook, Orkut (a once-popular, now-defunct social media network), Google and Uber.

And most recently, WhatsApp—Gupta’s organization, an NGO called the Centre for Accountability and Systemic Change (CASC), filed a petition against the Facebook-owned messaging company and the Indian government in the Supreme Court. The petition accused WhatsApp of failing to comply with regulations on data storage and not appointing a grievance officer.

“We are not against any individual organization, but we are working that the new legal system must evolve along with the new digital economy,” he says over the phone. One carefully measured lawyerly word at a time.

To that end, Gupta and CASC have many a grouse. That digital businesses in India get unfair advantages; that foreign companies aren’t paying taxes here; that many social media platforms are not properly regulated; that Indians’ data on said platforms is not secure.

No offers though

And—very, very specifically—that these companies do not have “grievance officers” (we’re going to be seeing this term a lot) in the country.

Gupta embodies a drive towards both privacy and protectionism—and against what he sees as “neocolonialists spread all across the globe” and “the new-age East India Companies”. A push to safeguard people’s data from foreign companies not “abiding by Indian laws”, with a strong nationalistic flavor.

Gupta, for his part, is firm that he’s apolitical. However, at least one of his associates has links to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

A frequent face on news television debates on cyber law—conspicuous by his greying hair, trademark square spectacles and a thick mustache—the 49-year-old lawyer is emblematic of a certain type of legal activism. One which has the potential to shape policymaking on digital rights and regulations, and more. And has only been rising in the wake of India’s rapidly growing tech ecosystem.

The grievances of man

Gupta’s made his first public entry into the fight over internet regulations in a 2012 case filed by KN Govindacharya, a 75-year-old former BJP leader. The case fought in the Delhi High Court, was against Facebook, Google, and others. Gupta represented Govindacharya.

They argued that foreign internet companies weren’t paying their fair share of taxes in India. That the government “is not taking any action to safeguard the national interest and the sovereignty of the country”. That children were “illegally” creating social media accounts, and that it was a national security issue that Indian users’ data was being stored abroad.

The victory came in 2013. The court declared that Facebook et al. had to, wait for it, appoint grievance officers, according to a certain clause in the Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011.

This demand for grievance officers became a common refrain in petition after a petition filed by Gupta, Govindacharya, and CASC.

In 2014, after an Uber driver was accused of raping a passenger, Govindacharya, through Gupta, filed a case in the Delhi High Court, saying that the online taxi platform—like many others—had not appointed grievance officers. The fact that Uber was allowed to operate despite this, their petition said, reflected a “collapse of governance in the country”. And again, they pointed out, Uber and other internet companies should pay taxes in India on all income earned within the country.

 

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