The government asking all telecom service providers (TSPs) as well as internet firms (ISPs) with gateways to explore how “Instagram/Facebook/Whatsapp/Telegram and such other mobile apps” can be blocked is both a sign of how worried it is about the increase in lynching—supposedly after rumours were forwarded on WhatsApp etc—as well as how it continues to tackle the issue the wrong way. Apart from the fact that it is not immediately clear it was the forwarded rumours that resulted in the lynching—especially that by self-styled gaurakshaks—part of the problem stems from the belief that Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, etc are all “apps” or that they are all “social media platforms”. While the telecom ministry’s letter to ISPs/TSPs seemed to feel they were all “apps”, the IT secretary said, on Tuesday, that he expected “all platforms to behave in a responsible manner, especially those platforms with large user base”.
Facebook, like Twitter, is a “social media platform”, so asking it to deal with fake news is the correct thing to do but, even here, it is not immediately clear how it can quickly down-rank or remove news considered to be fake—if someone posts a picture of a supposed child-snatcher, the only way Facebook can take action is if the Indian government or some arm of it, like the police, is able to, very quickly, officially deny the news or get court orders to remove the posting. A WhatsApp or a Telegram, on the other hand, is not a “social media platform”—both are messaging apps, and encrypted at that. So, it is not possible for them to know whether what is being circulated is porn or religious text or something else. In which case, it is not clear how they are to be more responsible. WhatsApp has started some initiatives, such as with BoomLive and the Hyderabad police to check for rumours, but the success of this lies on whether users choose to check the veracity of what they are forwarding.
If WhatsApp etc are to be blocked for not being able to stop rumours from being forwarded on their messaging apps, this has more serious ramifications, such as the signals it sends about India’s commitment to free speech—just a handful of people are misusing WhatsApp, but everyone gets punished through the move. And if fake news is the pretext for shutting down some communication channels today, it could be sedition or something else tomorrow. As we have seen in the past, both the IT Act, as well as sedition laws, have often been misapplied by ill-trained police personnel or politicians who abhor any form of dissent; even the Supreme Court has commented on this in the past.
Instead of chasing a WhatsApp, the government would do better if, through various state governments—it is they who are responsible for law and order—it was able to crack down on lynch mobs and try to sentence them quickly; taking visible action against politicians who promote hate-mongering is an equally important part of this. Once it is clear the government—Centre and states—means business, a lot of the fake-news forwards will stop. But if the government feels blocking a WhatsApp is needed, it needs to ask itself what it will do if the fake-news forwards now take place through SMS/MMS or some other chat app.