Miffed at WhatsApp's less-than-satisfactory compliance with the government's directive to combat fake news on its platform, the government is reportedly planning to crack its whip, again. According to The Economic Times, the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) is drafting a letter - the third since July - asking the Facebook-owned platform to design a technology-led solution to trace the origins of incendiary messages.
The development comes in the wake of around 40 incidents of lynching deaths across the country due to mass misinformation spread on WhatsApp, boasting over 200 million users in India.
Since the social media giant first came under fire over the fake news issue, it has announced a few measures aimed at discouraging mass forwards in the country. In fact, WhatsApp claims that Indians forward more messages, photographs and videos than any other country.
For instance, in August it rolled out the limited 'forward message' option for India, which restricts a forward message to just five users/groups -against the earlier 250 while globally it still allows users to send forwards to up to 20 users. The platform now also identifies forwarded messages and has kicked-off a publicity campaign against fake news.
However, the Centre has repeatedly made it clear that these measures are not good enough. "It [traceability] is a reasonable demand from us, and very much doable. The third letter will reiterate that WhatsApp is not meeting all our concerns," a top government official told the daily. "We are not asking them to look into the contents of the message, but if some message has been forwarded, say, 100 times and has caused some law and order problem, then they should be able to identify where it originated from."
According to the official, if WhatsApp feels the solution given by the government for traceability goes against its end-to-end encryption policy, then the company should be able to find a solution on its own - one that is technically feasible without compromising on its offering. "We are not being unfair since we can't allow anonymous publishing," he said, adding that WhatsApp cannot absolve itself from responsibility in the name of user privacy.
"For basic level of traceability, storing the metadata is enough," Sunil Abraham, executive director of Center of Internet and Society, told the daily. "For the kind of traceability that the Indian government is asking for, WhatsApp may have to break its end-to-end encryption. But other kind of traceability, such as who is messaging whom, how many times, who are the propagators of messages, and who are receivers, can all be seen through storing just metadata."
He explained that just as every organisation used to store copies of end-of-end encrypted emails on their own servers, WhatsApp can similarly either store copies of encrypted messages or the metadata.
The latest development on the part of the ministry comes a month after the Union Minister for Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad met WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels and asked the company to find solutions to current challenges that are "downright criminal violation of Indian laws".
Prasad further directed the company to have a "proper corporate entity located in India" along with a local grievance officer, a system to trace the origin of fake messages and better compliance with laws of the land. "We won't appreciate a scenario where any problem will have to be answered in America," he had added.
While WhatsApp agreed to register a corporate entity and build a team here, the impasse over offering traceability continues. The company, on its part, has defended end-to-end encryption saying that people rely on the platform for all kinds of sensitive conversations, including with their doctors, banks and families. "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," the company's spokesperson had said in August in response to MeitY's demand.
However, the source cited earlier pointed out that the government is not asking the company to break its end-to-end encryption, only figure out a workable solution. He added that if WhatsApp could find ways to tag non-original content with 'forward' labels and flag some links as spurious, it could also find a way around this problem.
Edited By Sushmita Choudhury Agarwal