by Elton Gomes
WhatsApp has rejected the Indian government’s demand to come up with a solution to track origin of messages on its platform. The Centre has now asked the messaging app to continue to look for solutions to track the original sender of messages that result in violence and crime.
The Centre has also asked WhatsApp to establish a corporate entity in India that will be subject to Indian laws within a defined timeframe. The requests from the government come after messages forwarded on Whatsapp resulted in the deaths of several people across India.
The government has been constantly pushing WhatsApp to find a technology solution to trace the origin of messages. The government believes that doing so will help in curbing the spate in mob-lynchings caused due to these messages shared on the platform. The IT ministry also wants a firmer assurance that WhatsApp will consent to Indian laws, and will seek a grievance officer, a source knowledgeable of the matter claimed.
A senior government official, on the condition of anonymity, said, “Continue to explore technical innovations whereby, in case of large-scale circulation of provocative and nefarious messages leading to violence and crime, the origin can be ascertained,” Hindustan Times reported. A source from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said, “It [WhatsApp] needs to set up an Indian corporate entity subject to Indian laws in a defined time frame,” the Hindu reported.
Citing a report from the Economic Times, Live Mint reported that the government is also considering laws to increase the accountability of internet and social media companies, and to make sure that swift action is taken to curb the spread of rumours. “The stringent move will involve the notification of fresh clauses under existing intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act,” the report said, according to Live Mint.
Although the ability to trace the origin of hoax messages has been a key demand by the government, WhatsApp says that this demand cannot be met. WhatsApp’s terms and conditions state that platform has not been designed to track individual messages, since it does not have access to private conversations over the messaging app.
“Building traceability would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse. WhatsApp will not weaken the privacy protections we provide,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told PTI.
The company further said that people use its platform for all types of ”sensitive conversation,” which is why instead of developing a tool to trace the origin of messages, WhatsApp is focussing on educating users about misinformation.
WhatsApp chief executive officer Chris Daniels met information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Tuesday. Prasad pressed WhatsApp to find a solution at any cost. He said, “It does not take rocket science to locate a message being circulated in hundreds and thousands… You must have a mechanism to find a solution,” Live Mint reported.
Users are of the opinion that the government’s option of traceability could be a serious threat to freedom of speech. Ananth Padmanabhan, fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, said WhatsApp was correct in rejecting the government’s demands. Padmanabhan said, “If they started in this direction (of traceability), the chilling effect it would have on free speech over the platform could be high. Responsible engagement can never be built using fear. Traceability is a tool of fear in a service that promises encrypted messaging,” Hindustan Times reported.
Pranesh Prakash, fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bengaluru-based think tank, said that WhatsApp should focus on urging users to not share hoax messages. He said that the company should extend all help to the police and should look to fund researchers and NGOs to reduce the harm WhatsApp is being subjected to.
In terms of tracing messages, Prakash said, “While WhatsApp might technically be able to trace a single hop of particular message using the timestamp, their encryption seems to prevents them from tracing message chains for messages without attached media. Requiring them to do so is exactly like the government asking Blackberry to decrypt messages they technically couldn’t. The government is just passing the buck,” Live Mint reported.
Elton Gomes is a staff writer at Qrius
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