WhatsApp regulation not easy, but govt concerns real

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Published: October 9, 2019 1:10:07 AM

If WhatsApp is used to spread rumours that fan communal passions, or by terrorists to communicate, surely the government needs access to this?

IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s stance vindicated by US officials writing to Facebook on lawful access to it.IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s stance vindicated by US officials writing to Facebook on lawful access to it. (File)

The fact that the US Attorney General William Barr has written to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, asking him to ensure, among other things, that police officials get “lawful access to content in a readable and usable format” must come as a shot in the arm for India’s IT, and telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who has also been trying to get social media firms to agree to giving lawful access to Indian officials; the UK secretary of state, the US secretary of Homeland Security, and Australia’s home minister were other signatories to Barr’s letter. While firms like Twitter and WhatsApp/Facebook argued that they had no control over what was posted as they were just platforms or, on other occasions, that they did not have access to information—such as on WhatsApp—as it was encrypted, the issues raised by Prasad are real. If WhatsApp is used to spread rumours that fan communal passions, or by terrorists to communicate, surely the government needs access to this? Indeed, that is precisely what Barr’s letter asks for.

The argument of Facebook/Twitter etc being just public platforms has, in any case, been contradicted by the behaviour of these firms. If they are the virtual version of the public square, where anyone can say anything, these social media firms cannot be censoring, and blocking people as they do now. Barr’s letter, as it happens, details some of this work that Facebook is currently doing. More than 90% of the 18.4 million reports to the US National Centre for Missing & Exploited Children in 2018, the letter says, were those made by Facebook (based on what it gleaned from people’s posts/messages); the UK’s National Crime Agency, Barr etc say, arrested more than 2,500 persons last year, and safeguarded 3,000 children as a result of the information provided by Facebook. Facebook’s transparency report said it acted against 26 million pieces of terrorist content between October 2017 and March 2019. So, if Facebook does end-to-end encryption of its messaging services as it plans, the letter says, 70% of Facebook’s reporting will no longer happen; keep in mind, the bulk of Facebook’s reports for child sexual exploitation and terrorism come from what its algorithm detects as objectionable, not from reports by users.

It goes without saying that social media firms have to protect the privacy of users, and end-to-end encryption is one way to do this; this is why there is an outcry against India’s ‘intermediary guidelines’ that want a Twitter/WhatsApp to “deploy technology based automated tools or appropriate mechanisms, with appropriate controls, for proactively identifying and removing or disabling public access to unlawful information or content”. But, the lawmakers’ concerns are equally valid. How the two conflicting issues are to be resolved is not clear, but given that social media amplifies messages like never before—within a day of the New Zealand white supremacist attack on a mosque that left 50 dead, the attack video had been uploaded 1.5 million times—it needs to come up with a solution as well. It is obvious that, if India were to try to get information from a WhatsApp, people will start using a Telegram, or a Signal, but it is in WhatsApp’s interests to come up with workable solutions if it doesn’t want to lose a lucrative Indian market. Also, as the Barr letter suggests, if countries work together, it will be easier to get social media to come up with acceptable solutions; by way of example, when most countries decided to act against tax havens, several such jurisdictions started falling in line. It is not clear that the Indian regulator Trai’s plan to regulate players like WhatsApp in the same way as it does telcos will help—like telcos, WhatsApp will also have to comply with lawful intercept rules—but it will be interesting to see what solutions/offers firms like WhatsApp come up with to satisfy the authorities.

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