The government on Tuesday continued to build up pressure on the popular messaging app WhatsApp to come up with a technological solution to ensure traceability of messages being circulated in bulk in any particular area of the country. Electronics and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who has been insisting on this, once again communicated the same to WhatsApp global CEO Chris Daniels, who met him earlier in the day.
“I have said in the past that it is no rocket science to identify a message which is being circulated in lakhs on the same day in the same area. You must have a mechanism to find a solution otherwise you could face abetment charges,” Prasad told reporters after the meeting.
The minister said that he asked the WhatsApp CEO to appoint a grievance officer in the country who can act fast on complaints of fake messages being circulated on its platform. He said that WhatsApp has been asked to register a corporate entity in the country for better compliance with domestic laws.
Though Daniels did not speak to the media, technology experts with whom FE spoke to said that while messages on WhatsApp are end-to-end encrypted and cannot be read by WhatsApp, the company can trace the origin of the messages through source code. Source codes are used in mobile phones and email networks to trace messages.
While in phone networks it is called call data record, in emails it is called internet protocol data record (IPDR).
However, for such traceability there needs to be a domestic entity that is bound by local laws mandating how long the data is stored by the company concerned. For instance, today WhatsApp is not registered as a company in India. There is no policy on local data storage and for what time period. Though WhatsApp cooperates with investigating agencies upon a complaint, globally also it is not regulated as to how long it needs to store data.
However, public policy experts said that the traceability issue, even if achieved, cannot be preventive in nature and would come into effect only after an incident takes place. “You need a mechanism by which instantaneous action can be taken to prevent an untoward incident, like a communal riot for instance, which is not possible by tracing the origin of the message. This can be of use only once an incident has taken place,” said a former government official.
Though there are limitations, WhatsApp on its part is trying to bring some features that contain the spread of rumours and fake news. Upon the insistence of government it has limited forwarding messages to five chats at a time and even removed the quick forward button next to media messages. Prior to this, it added a feature which labels forwarded messages, thus distinguishing them from the original ones.
Analysts said that though WhatsApp has tried to come up with some solutions and is continuously trying to bring in improvements, a better approach would be if all the parties sit together and work on solutions. A case in point is the recent presidential election in Mexico where WhatsApp worked closely with a news agency wherein users sent rumours to its WhatsApp account and were given information on what was accurate and what was false. In India it is working with Boom Live on similar lines.
Another case in point can be Hyderabad Police, which has created a WhatsApp account to check crime-related rumours. Put simply, one of the solution could be that WhatsApp adds on its app the phone numbers of various fact-checking agencies where subscribers could forward forwarded messages to checks their veracity.