On Tuesday, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad met the Chief Executive Officer of WhatsApp and asked for the the instant messaging app to reveal to the Indian government the origins of messages that are used to spread false information. On Thursday, however, WhatsApp turned down the request.
WhatsApp is India’s largest mobile messaging app. Over the term of the Modi government, as incidents of mob violence have gone up, fingers have been pointed at social media tools such as WhatsApp as a facilitator of the spread of incendiary rumours. Messages sent on WhatsApp cannot be traced since they are encrypted end-to-end. This applies not only to government but also to WhatsApp itself, which cannot read messages sent on its app.
In its reply, WhatsApp highlighted the importance of this sort of strong privacy feature, arguing that people used the app for all kinds of sensitive conversations with their doctors, banks and families. “Building traceability would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse,” WhatsApp said.
That governments should not have the power to snoop in on private conversations should be obvious in a democracy. However, the Union government’s request to WhatsApp shows that it is little understood in New Delhi. This is an especially ironic point coming as it does on the first anniversary of the Supreme court judgement which ruled that privacy in India is nothing less than a fundamental right. Clearly, even after this, little has changed on the ground so far.
This is not the only example. In July, the Union government released the draft Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018, submitted as part of the recommendations of the Justice Srikrishna Committee on data security. This document, rather than strengthen privacy, aims to protect Aadhaar, India’s controversial biometric identity project. As Scroll.in has reported earlier, even more troublingly, the draft bill also aims to provide broad exceptions to consent clauses when the data is processed by the government, making it possible for the government to obtain an individual’s data without her consent.
Faced with a recalcitrant WhatsApp, the Union government is moving to amend the rules to force social media companies to appoint grievance officers who could be held accountable in case of the spread of incendiary rumours, reported the Economic Times. That mob lynchings are a grave problem in India is a fact. Yet, it seems the government is more interested in using the spread of false information as an excuse to weaken the privacy of Indian citizens rather than actually act against the problem. In some cases, for example, there has been little action against even people who have been identified spreading fake news. And even more troublingly, in some other cases, people linked to the ruling party have even encouraged the perpetrators of mob violence.