India asks WhatsApp to set up local unit, curb fake news
IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad conveys India’s concerns in chat with WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels
New Delhi: India on Tuesday asked WhatsApp, a messaging service owned by Facebook, to devise ways to trace the origin of fake messages circulated on the platform, set up a local corporate entity and appoint a grievance officer to address complaints, aiming to curb the spread of deadly rumours that have claimed several lives.
“I requested CEO WhatsApp Chris Daniels to set up a grievance officer in India; establish a corporate entity in India & comply with Indian laws. He assured me that WhatsApp will soon take steps on all these counts,” information technology (IT) minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said on Twitter after a meeting with Daniels on Tuesday.
Daniels’s visit to India and his meeting with Prasad follows more than a dozen killings across India this year in mob lynchings fuelled by rumours circulating on WhatsApp. The government last month warned the company that it can’t evade responsibility if its service is used to spread false information.
Daniels is in India for the next four days and will meet business and government officials during his visit.
In Tuesday’s meeting, the government also asked Daniels to work closely with law enforcement agencies of India and create public awareness campaigns to prevent misuse of the app, Prasad said in a Twitter post.
“These platforms have to follow certain norms. If they don’t follow norms, then we will approach these platforms with the concerns and the steps needed. We are confident that big platforms would want to retain the confidence of users on their platforms,” IT secretary Ajay P. Sawhney told reporters on 7 August on the sidelines of a conference.
The government on Tuesday also sought a technological solution from WhatsApp to trace the origin of fake messages.
“I have said in the past that 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,” Prasad said after the meeting on Tuesday. WhatsApp could face abetment charges if no action is taken, he added.
WhatsApp declined to comment on an emailed query seeking details of the proposed measures.
The department of telecommunications has asked telecom operators and internet service providers to suggest ways to block social media apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp during emergencies.
“Data is in two stages. Either it is in transit or it is stored at the originator or receiver’s end,” a telecom industry analyst said, requesting anonymity. “You cannot control packets of data flowing on the network. You need to tackle it at the originator’s end or the receiver’s end, which will go against the idea of data privacy.”
Tracing the origin of messages may not be easy.
“The government’s demand for a technology solution requires the content of the message to be read. The content on WhatsApp is encrypted and the user has a key to de-encrypt it, which also changes dynamically,” a cyber lawyer said, requesting anonymity.
“The government should, instead of taking one issue at a time, bring out a policy framework on the possible harm due to the internet messaging platforms to engage at a deeper level,” the lawyer said. “Asking a foreign company to establish an entity in India is only asking for greater control without clearly identifying the potential harm.” The lawyer added that since WhatsApp users converse outside Indian boundaries, the storage of a foreign user’s data could come with its own jurisdiction issues.
On its part, apart from running user education campaigns in India, WhatsApp has capped the number of recipients of a chat message to five to limit mass spamming. Also, the quick forward button next to media messages has been disabled.
On 3 July, the social media giant rolled out a new feature to clearly mark “forwarded” messages.
Last month, the IT ministry raised concerns related to the roll-out of the WhatsApp Payments in India, seeking clarity on whether the new UPI-based service conforms with the Reserve Bank of India’s security and privacy rules.
“We said we have flagged attention to the RBI, namely financial data being in India. The RBI is working on the guidelines and he (Daniels) has assured me, whatever guidelines RBI comes out with, he will comply with that,” Prasad said on Tuesday, according to a report by news agency PTI.
As of February 2017, there were more than 200 million monthly active WhatsApp users in India. There are over 1.5 billion users in the world.
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