NEW DELHI—An Indian court ordered Facebook Inc.’s WhatsApp and Alphabet Inc.’s Google to preserve data connected to an attack on a university campus earlier this month in the latest attempt by authorities in the country to wrangle more control over the messaging and search giants.
According to an attorney involved in the case, the Delhi High Court said Tuesday that the companies, local police and university authorities must try to save messages, photos and videos connected to the Jan. 5 attack, when several dozen people stormed the campus of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, injuring 32 students and two faculty members.
The attack on what is seen as one of India’s most liberal universities came as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has aggressively pushed a series of measures the party’s Hindu nationalist base has long sought. Critics say these policies are discriminatory and undermine India’s tradition of religious tolerance.
The investigation into the attack is being closely followed in India, where weeks of large-scale protests have been held against a controversial new citizenship law recently passed by the government.
Abhik Chimni, a lawyer for three professors from the university who had petitioned the court, said attackers used WhatsApp groups to plan the assault and access to the chats could help identify the attackers and their motivations.
“We want those behind these groups and the attack on the students and teachers at JNU to be held responsible,” Mr. Chimni said.
Facebook and Google didn’t immediately respond to questions about the court’s decision.
WhatsApp has consistently said that messages exchanged on its platform are encrypted, unreadable in transit, and can’t be seen by authorities or WhatsApp itself. WhatsApp has more than 400 million users in India, which is its largest market.
Rumors spread on the platform in recent years have led to mob violence in India. The company has previously clashed with the Indian government over access to users’ messages.
With its 1.3 billion people, only about half of whom are yet online, India is the world’s biggest untapped tech market, with inexpensive smartphones and mobile data fueling a boom in e-commerce, social-media consumption, music and video streaming.
Unlike China, which put up barriers to American companies, India has been relatively open to foreign players. But New Delhi has begun making life more difficult U.S. companies, which now dominate the market.
On Monday, the country’s antitrust watchdog ordered an investigation into whether Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc.’s Flipkart have violated competition laws. After Walmart in 2018 signed a $16 billion deal to acquire online-shopping startup Flipkart, India tweaked its rules governing how foreign-owned e-commerce companies sell goods online.
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