Indian Government Seeks Access to Private WhatsApp Messages

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The government of India recently put online retailer websites like Amazon and Flipkart into a cacophony with its new policies that dealt a hard blow to their growth plan. Now, social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are in danger of suffering similar setbacks in arguably the world’s most rapidly growing technology market.

In the latest turn of events, the Indian government is targetting Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which is the most popular social media app in the country. The government is taking a toll on WhatsApp for its use to incite violence and spread pornography, and asking the social media platform to allow more official oversight on the online discussions that go on the platform, even if that means giving officials access to protected, or encrypted, messages. Facebook has refused, risking punitive measures and even the possibility of a shutdown in one of its biggest markets.

“For six months, we’ve been telling them to bring more accountability to their platform but what have they done?” said Gopalakrishnan S., a senior official in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology known as MEITY. “So pedophiles can go about on WhatsApp fully secure that they won’t get caught. It is absolutely evil.”

WhatsApp spokesperson, Carl Woog, said the government’s demands are directly counter to the company’s privacy policies and compliance to the government’s demands would mean ending the service’s privacy protections.

“What is contemplated by the rules is not possible today given the end-to-end encryption that we provide and it would require us to re-architect WhatsApp, leading us to a different product, one that would not be fundamentally private,” said Woog in a roundtable last week.

Woog added that WhatsApp has zero tolerance for child sexual abuse, and that about 250,000 accounts are banned each month for sharing vile content. “We ban users from WhatsApp if we become aware they are sharing content that exploits or endangers children,” he said.

Facebook, too, is planning to add default encryption to users’ chats on Messenger and Instagram in the next year or so. With end-to-end encryption, not even Facebook can read the messages that are being shared on its platform, meaning there is no way to police the content.

India is one of the emerging markets for technology companies. Its online market, which had 71 million people a decade ago, has now grown up to 480 million and is projected to grow to 737 million by 2022, according to Forrester Research Inc. That has led the US-based companies like Amazon to Facebook, Twitter, and Microsoft to invest heavily in the country. Nevertheless, the latest turn of events, show that the government is creating its own rules, which are sometimes unpredictable, in order to regulate the online market in the country.

Twitter has recently been summoned by Indian parliamentary committee for alleged discrimination against right-wing groups, including the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The committee, led by Anurag Thakur, has summoned Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey to appear Feb. 25 to answer questions on the issue. The government has also announced in the parliament that it had directed Google and Microsoft share their software tools to help track down and remove images of child exploitation.

Notably, WhatsApp had received criticism last year for its use to spread and propagate rumors and fake videos on the platform which happened to turn out to be real-world violence. WhatsApp decided to curb fake news and misinformation by limiting the number of times a message can be forwarded down to five. Nevertheless, this has not satisfied the Indian government and the officials want more access to WhatsApp messages themselves so they can hold people accountable.

“If telecom companies like Airtel, Jio, and BSNL are mandated to maintain call records, why should WhatsApp get a different rule?” Gopalakrishnan said in a telephone interview, referring to India’s wireless operators. “We don’t care about the good morning and divorce messages that are shared, we only want traceability to prevent or detect crimes.”

His ministry is also drafting rules that are called “Intermediary Guidelines,” which would make online social media platforms like WhatsApp responsible for the content their users share. Such regulations would also affect Facebook, Twitter and popular Chinese apps such as Bytedance Ltd.’s TikTok. A draft shared on MEITY website suggest that the guideline would hold such services responsible for a broad range of content, including information found to be “blasphemous, defamatory, obscene, pornographic, paedophilic, libelous, invasive of another’s privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically objectionable, disparaging, relating or encouraging money laundering or gambling, or otherwise unlawful in any manner whatever.”

If the draft rules come into effect, WhatsApp and other social media platforms will have to make messages traceable,  remove objectionable content within 24 hours, and cooperate with government agencies investigating offenses.

WhatsApp has not agreed to ditch its encryption policy in any market, nevertheless, it is under immense pressure from the government to censor content and provide details of private communications.

In response to India’s draft rules, the ministry has received over 600 pages of commentary, including from the companies themselves. The deadline for comments ends later this week. The government could choose to finalize and enforce the new rules within weeks.

Gopalakrishnan said WhatsApp executives had been “dilly-dallying” for months and the government needs to see faster progress. “This is thoroughly disappointing,” he said.

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