The popular messaging app declined to help the Indian government trace the origin of potentially inflammatory messages, citing confidentiality of its users.
WhatsApp is one of the most popular messaging services across the internet, through which users make voice calls and send text messages, user location, images and other media. The app has 1.3 billion subscribers in more than 180 countries.
WhatsApp was founded in January 2009 by two former Yahoo engineers, Jan Koum and Brian Acton and is now owned by Facebook.
Fake news and misinformation spread via social media such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp are a growing problem in India. In recent months, WhatsApp messages have inspired deadly attacks across the country.
India is one of the largest user bases for WhatsApp, with many small-scale organisations adapting the WhatsApp model to conduct their daily business over the app. It has been generally remarked that Indian WhatsApp users have a characteristic trait of forwarding large volumes of messages to their contacts, akin to the chain-email phenomenon of the early 2000s. While this may result in pleasant “Good Morning” messages, it is also a fertile conduit for rumours, or more accurately, “fake news”.
India has told WhatsApp, the private messaging service, to establish a formal presence in the country, including a local grievance office, as the government seeks to tackle the use of the app to spread “fake news”.
In a meeting in New Delhi last week, Chris Daniels, chief executive of WhatsApp, was told by Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s information technology minister, that the government was deeply concerned about the way the platform was being misused to spread baseless rumours and incite violence.
“We must find solutions to these challenges, which are downright criminal and a violation of criminal laws,” Mr. Prasad said after the meeting.
Mr. Prasad said WhatsApp had been ordered to immediately appoint a local grievance officer to deal with complaints, and set up a proper corporate entity in India that could be held accountable. “We do not appreciate a scenario where any problem will have to be answered in America,” Mr. Prasad said. “No. That is not acceptable.”
The menace of “fake news” is not endemic only to the United States, and there have been human casualties as a result of people using WhatsApp to spread fake news. Tracing individual messages would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse, according to Carl Woog, spokesperson for WhatsApp. He added. "We will not weaken the privacy protections WhatsApp provides."
India's Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has not responded to this latest development.
The messaging service has taken several steps recently to prevent the spread of misinformation, including stricter limits on how many chats Indian users can forward a message to simultaneously and labels on messages that are forwarded rather than composed by the sender.
In recent months, rural India has seen a series of mob lynchings by crowds of angry villagers incited by inflammatory WhatsApp rumours warning families about child abductors lurking in their communities.
Among the casualties of these violence was a UK-educated, Hyderabad-based IT professional killed in Karnataka, and two friends — a musician and an engineer — killed in the tea-growing state of Assam. In both cases, crowds were mobilised by WhatsApp alerts claiming that the innocent passers-by were child kidnappers.
Our assessment is that the Indian government is trying to achieve multiple objectives with this curve ball. India is gearing up for a volatile election year ahead of the May 2019 polls, therefore it is prudent of the incumbent government to track any malicious news or rumours, that is targeted against them. We also feel that WhatsApp’s position on protecting end-user privacy is equally important as curbing the spread of fake news. In an increasingly technology-driven world, it is becoming easier for large tech companies to intrude on the privacy of an individual. We believe that respecting the end consumer’s rights is paramount for a digital services company. We also believe it is going to be extremely important to regulate the social media space without infringing privacy.