Razorpay, one of the biggest business payment processing services in India, is facing criticism after it was caught sharing donation and personal information with Delhi police. Payment data was seized from donors contributing to Alt News, a non-profit media company that saw its founder arrested for an offensive tweet last month, in what police say is an investigation into foreign influence.
Delhi police seize donor information as part of investigation into overseas payments
Alt News was founded in 2017 as an independent fact-checking outlet, signing on as a partner with the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network. The group has been involved in several controversial stories, most recently for its rebroadcast of comments made by a spokesperson for India’s ruling party that were considered offensive to Muslims. That spokesperson has since been suspended by the party, but critics believe that recent attention from the Delhi police is retribution against Alt News for giving the story legs and embarrassing the party.
Regardless of the motivation of the Delhi police, the issue has put India’s lack of a national data privacy law and its speech laws in the spotlight. The government provides a good deal of leeway for arrests to be made over social media posts that can be interpreted as offensive to public figures (including those in the government), ethnic groups or religions.
Alt News cofounder Mohammed Zubair was arrested in June over a 2018 tweet said to be insulting to three militant Hindu religious leaders who had issued videos calling for violence against Muslims. But the real focus of Delhi police investigations into Alt News appears to be the possibility of foreign donations, something that is restricted by the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. To that end, Razorpay turned over relevant payment data to Delhi police under the authority of a section of the Criminal Procedure Code that critics say is too broad in its language and allows for excessive requests and misuse.
Alt News said that the payment data that was seized included donor names, email addresses, phone numbers and tax ID numbers. An official with the Delhi police followed up on the story by saying that the seized payment data is being checked against bank records, with the goal of identifying anyone outside of India that might have donated to Alt News.
Claims of foreign influence have dogged Alt News for some time, extending beyond the present Delhi police investigation. Government elements and supporters have accused the media outlet of taking payments from organizations in Pakistan, the UAE and Syria, among other countries.
Seized payment data highlights struggle to establish national data privacy law
A national data security and protection law could supersede Delhi police authority in cases such as this, but back-and-forth efforts to establish such a law have once again stalled out. The provisions of Indian law that currently govern data privacy stem from a badly outdated 2000 bill, and there has been serious effort to establish a replacement since 2018. The Personal Data Protection Bill had been shaping up to be that replacement, but was shuttered due to disagreements over various provisions opposed by business interests that were facing substantial increased expenses to be in compliance. Lawmakers are now essentially starting over.
In the meantime, Razorpay has seen significant backlash over the Delhi police incident and faces growing calls for a boycott. The company claims that it was obligated by law to turn over the payment data and contradicted claims that it contained tax ID numbers or email addresses. The consequences for denying these types of requests can be severe, including criminal charges brought against company executives, and it is unclear exactly how much legal room Razorpay had to refuse cooperation.
Alt News says that it only allows donations from domestic bank accounts and that Razorpay does not allow payments from foreign credit cards, thus there was no legitimate basis for the Delhi police to seize the payment data. The media outlet said that it covers expenses via a combination of private donations and grants from within India. Alt News said that it plans to stay with Razorpay in the near term, after having its account reactivated, but is seeking an alternative payment processor.
Free speech issues have become more prominent in India in recent years, particularly the targeting of journalists that publish stories critical of the ruling government. Authorities in the country have been linked to the use of the Pegasus spyware to infect the phones of journalists and surreptitiously track their movements and communications, and the government has increasingly used counterterrorism and sedition laws in questionable ways to pursue activists and journalists. Crackdowns have been particularly harsh in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir regions, where special laws exist that allow for detention without evidence.