It is not clear how popular messaging service WhatsApp is going to deal with the government’s latest directive.
It is not clear how popular messaging service WhatsApp is going to deal with the government’s latest directive that, even if it cannot proactively stop rumours from being spread using its app, it can at least help trace the original sender of a message, along with those that have forwarded it if need be. The other two demands, of having a local grievance officer as well as setting up a full-fledged India office are relatively easy to meet and, as and when the government takes a call on whether data needs to be stored locally—or mirrored in Indian servers—WhatsApp will, like all other firms, comply with that.
This is not the first time the government is making such a demand; even though relatively fewer people used it, the government kept insisting Blackberry help decrypt messages in case this was required by law—Blackberry’s response, much like WhatsApp’s now, was that it didn’t have the ‘keys’ to decrypt messages and that these were generated by the user’s phone; the best that it could do, after getting the appropriate court orders, was to give the authorities the IP address of where the message was generated from. In this case, the argument being made by the government is that, say, a person is arrested in a lynching case and a WhatsApp message is recovered from his phone, the message will have a unique ID and, even without decrypting the message, WhatsApp can trace where the message originated from after analysing the meta-data. Whether WhatsApp will do this is not clear since, were it to do this, it would put at risk its entire global model as people use it not just because it is free but also because they believe all conversations/messages on it are secure.
What the government needs to think about, however, is what happens if WhatsApp is unable to comply and is then asked to shut down its services. Most other messaging services like Telegram or JioChat offer similar encryption levels; to the extent rumours are being sent via messaging apps, any action against WhatsApp will lead to more users migrating to other apps. In such a situation, the government will have to get Telegram, JioChat, etc., to track the origin of messages. Even as the government grapples with this issue, it would do well to take a lesson from the prime minister’s independence day speech. In the speech, the PM spoke of the need to give wide publicity to cases in which rapists were awarded the death sentence—in fast-track courts in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh—saying it would instill fear in people with “demonic mindset” and deter others from committing the same crime. If the police were to catch lynchers quickly, and the courts to sentence them, then those using WhatsApp or any other messaging platform to forward rumours would automatically exercise restraint, tackling the very problem that the government is worried about. Also, while it is true that lynch mobs are provoked by rumours forwarded on various messaging apps, in most such cases, it is well-known local goons who are also involved—the prime minister has, on a few occasions, said many of the so-called gaurakshaks involved in lynching are nothing but criminals. In which case, it is police action that is needed, WhatsApp is just a side show.