WhatsApp says cannot build software to trace messages

New Delhi: Even as Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp said that it was not possible to trace the origin of a message on its platform, given its privacy settings, the government is not willing to give in and, instead, sought “technical innovation” from the company to address the issue.

In fact, the social media giant and the government are at loggerheads over the mechanism to ensure traceability of fake messages.

India has witnessed a spate of lynchings triggered by fake messages on social media platforms, primarily through WhatsApp. Several incidents have been reported from Assam, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tripura, Jharkhand and West Bengal.

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Earlier, the IT ministry had written to WhatsApp twice, asking it to come out with effective solutions to bring in accountability and facilitate law enforcement. On Tuesday, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said: “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.”

“We have noted the contents of the response from WhatsApp. While we appreciate some of the assurances given…WhatsApp should continue to explore technical innovations whereby, in case of large scale circulation of provocative and nefarious messages leading to violence and crime, the origin can be ascertained,” said a senior Information technology (IT) ministry official on Thursday, requesting anonymity.

Earlier this week, Prasad had also met WhatsApp CEO Chris Daniels and requested him 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 to curb the spread of deadly rumours.

However, WhatsApp on Thursday said it cannot build software to trace the origin of a message. “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,” said WhatsApp spokesperson Carl Woog. “People rely on WhatsApp for all kinds of sensitive conversations, including with their doctors, banks and families…Our focus remains working closer with others in India to educate people about misinformation and help keep people safe.”

The government also wants an assurance from WhatsApp on compliance with Indian laws, establishing a grievance cell, and an Indian corporate entity, which will be subject to Indian laws, within a defined time frame, said the government official mentioned above.

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 curb mass spamming. Besides, the quick forward button next to media messages has also been disabled. On 3 July, the social media giant rolled out a new feature to clearly mark “forwarded” messages.

The Centre is also considering laws to increase the accountability of internet and social media companies and to ensure quick action to stop the spread of rumours, The Economic Times reported. “The stringent move will involve the notification of fresh clauses under existing intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act,” the report said, quoting a government official.

Last month, the IT ministry had also raised concerns on the roll-out of 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. Prasad asked the company to comply with the RBI guidelines on storage of financial data in India.

As of February 2017, India has over 200 million active WhatsApp users. Over 1.5 billion global users use the messaging platform.

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