India steps up vigilance against WhatsApp abuse

Delhi wants firm to open local office, appoint grievance officer as misinformation spreads

In one of its strongest directives yet to WhatsApp, the Indian government has asked the California-based messaging service firm to set up an office and appoint a grievance officer in India.

Indian Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad conveyed the request to WhatsApp chief executive Chris Daniels during a meeting on Tuesday. It came against the backdrop of the growing misuse of the messaging app to disseminate misinformation.

"I requested WhatsApp chief executive 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," Mr Prasad tweeted after the meeting.

"I further asked WhatsApp CEO... to work closely with law enforcement agencies of India and create public awareness campaign to prevent misuse of WhatsApp. He assured me that #WhatsApp will undertake these initiatives," he added in another tweet.

The firm has not yet provided a confirmation of these claims.

The spread of misinformation about child kidnappings through WhatsApp has been linked to a series of mob lynchings that have led to the deaths of least 28 people across India since April.

There are also concerns that the spread of fake news via the application could gather further momentum ahead of next year's general elections in India. The firm has more than 200 million active monthly users in India - its biggest market and a sizeable chunk of its 1.5 billion global user base.

WhatsApp, the most widely used messaging app in India, has struggled to control the spread of misinformation in India on its platform.

With the government demanding greater accountability from it, the firm has made it more difficult for users to forward content by removing shortcuts. It has limited to five the number of people a message can be forwarded to each time, and introduced a "forwarded" label for such messages.

But the authorities have found this inadequate given the enormity of the challenge and rampant abuse.

Last month, the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said: "There is a need for bringing in traceability and accountability when a provocative/inflammatory message is detected, and a request is made by law enforcement agencies.

"When rumours and fake news get propagated by mischief mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability. If they remain mute spectators, they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter, face consequent legal action."

Mr Prasad, speaking to the media after the meeting, said: "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."

The Indian government's demand for WhatsApp to set up a local office is not unprecedented.

The European Union General Data Protection Regulation says a foreign firm that processes personal data of individuals in the EU "may be required" to appoint a representative in an EU state. However, calls by the government to detect messages and track down senders have prompted concerns over privacy violation, and pose a technical challenge.

Mr Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Internet and Society, a Bangalore-based nonprofit organisation, said: "Application-wide blocking of the same content is not possible on WhatsApp because it uses end-to-end cryptography, and there is no way WhatsApp can determine which messages are being forwarded."

But there are potential remedies that are less controversial, and easier to achieve.

Mr Abraham suggested that WhatsApp fund a large network of fact checkers and provide a "fact check this" button along with all forwarded messages. "This button could then transmit the suspicious message to a common database that is managed by the network for fact checkers," he added.

Last month, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology raised concerns on the expected roll-out of WhatsApp Payments, which lets users make financial transactions via the application. It has sought clarity on whether the service adheres to the Reserve Bank of India's security and privacy rules.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2018, with the headline India steps up vigilance against WhatsApp abuse. Subscribe