In the past three months, India has seen 39 incidents of lynching due to mass misinformation spread on WhatsApp. But fake news isn't the only thing that has the government worried - there's the growing misuse of social media for illegal activities such as child pornography and terror, too. So the government is now reportedly mulling an option of blocking popular apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram.
According to The Economic Times, three weeks ago, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) sent out a letter to stakeholders asking them to look into this option. "You are requested to explore various possible options and confirm how the Instagram/Facebook/WhatsApp/Telegram and other such mobile apps can be blocked on internet," DoT said in a letter dated July 18 that was marked to telcos including Airtel, Jio, Vodafone, Idea, besides telecom and ISP industry bodies.
The letter further stated that the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) and legal enforcement agencies had raised issues regarding social media apps and the matter had been previously discussed during a meeting with the DoT on July 4, where technical inputs were sought to block the apps under the provisions of Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, 2000.
This section provides for a mechanism for the government to block public access to any online information "in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to the above".
Citing a DoT official, the report added that the ministry has started a "discussion" to address the need for a "reasonable good solution to protect national security", however no decision has yet been taken to block any apps.
Incidentally, this is not the first time that the DoT has sent out feelers to industry representatives on the topic. The department had reportedly sent a similar letter on June 28, followed by a reminder on August 3.
This new development comes against the backdrop of the government's far-from-satisfied response to WhatsApp's recent measures to combat fake news, including curbing forwards and bringing out newspaper ads. An IT ministry official told the daily that Facebook-owned WhatsApp has not acceded to a key demand of the government, which is to trace the origin of a message, and instead reiterated its commitment to end-to-end encryption. "What is the alternative with the government, closing the internet? That would be like throwing the baby with the bath water. So that's why DoT is considering this option," the source added.
But not everybody is on the same page as the Centre. According to the daily, the telecom industry body Cellular Operators Association of India reportedly reverted to the DoT saying that it would be extremely difficult, if not near impossible, to categorically block apps. The Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) and mobile phone operators are yet to respond to the latest letter while telcos have reportedly made it clear that they won't take the initiative to block any app without a clear directive from the government.
The government newfound zeal to clamp down on social media apps makes more sense when you factor in the 2019 general elections - concerns that fake news may be used to influence the elections have been gaining steam. So, in recent months, teams from WhatsApp and Facebook have come down to India for meetings with Election Commission officials to discuss ways to prevent misuse of the platform in India's coming election cycle.