October 18, 2023
The government’s proposal to ask WhatsApp to disclose the originator is sound but its demand for exclusivity and control over this process is unacceptable and must be resisted.
Representative image | Photo: PTI
The government of India wants the American social media company Meta to disclose the originator of specific WhatsApp messages, under the new Information Technology Rules 2021. Predictably, Meta is resisting this and fighting it in the courts. I support the government’s conceptual idea of asking Meta to share the burden of responsibility for its content and disclose the originator. But with a twist. Here is why.
There is an entire Wikipedia page titled ‘Indian WhatsApp Lynchings’. It lists 13 incidents of WhatsApp rumours that claimed the lives of 24 Indians and injured 17 others in just two years between 2017 and 2018. Think about this for a minute. A communication platform is wreaking so much havoc in India that there is a dedicated section for it in the world’s most popular digital encyclopaedia.
India and WhatsApp share this unique ignominy that no other country has. As recently as in August, the Haryana government officially blamed WhatsApp for aiding and abetting communal violence in Nuh leading to several deaths. However much Meta screams from its rooftop in Menlo Park, California that WhatsApp is a mere technology platform and must be treated as one, the harsh truth is that it’s a veiled murder weapon in India.
When lives are at stake repeatedly, WhatsApp cannot continue to function unfettered and Indian society has a moral compulsion and a legitimate reason to intervene. One may justifiably argue that this will then open the doors for any communication medium to be subject to control under this alibi. But what makes WhatsApp much more dangerous as a weapon in India vis-à-vis other mediums is its ubiquity, anonymity, and opacity. Nearly every Indian uses WhatsApp and can anonymously incite hate and violence while operating opaquely. This is a hazardous and combustible combination for our society.
Ubiquity and opacity of WhatsApp are a given and it is neither prudent nor plausible to attempt to change or regulate these. However, anonymity can be regulated to serve as a deterrent for weaponising WhatsApp. Recently, in separate incidents, Wasim in Haryana and Kundan Kumar in Bihar started fake WhatsApp rumours that went viral, whipping up communal tension, and killing and injuring many innocent people. Rakesh in Bihar shot and spread a fake video of migrant workers being assaulted in Tamil Nadu causing much political furore and panic amongst migrant workers in the state. If Rakesh, Wasim and Kundan knew that, just in case, their fake message could go viral and they could be identified as the originators leading to social and criminal repercussions, they may have possibly exercised restraint.
The mere knowledge that their identities could be revealed can act as a strong deterrent for mischievous fake messages. The notion that their anonymity shield could come undone can serve as a powerful warning to those seeking to misuse and weaponise WhatsApp. Signalling to lumpen elements in society that they are tracked and identified is a well-established and extensively used idea to minimise crime.
Anonymity vs privacy
Technically, neither should it be very hard for WhatsApp to do this, nor does it have to compromise on its encryption principle. WhatsApp evidently records a unique ID for every message and an ID for every sender. The only requirement is for WhatsApp to disclose the original sender ID of a certain message ID, for which it does not have to read the content of the message. The actual message content is irrelevant to the process of disclosing the sender ID of the originator of a viral message. This does not violate any privacy, as WhatsApp seems to argue in the courts. While the two seem to go hand-in-hand, anonymity is different from privacy.
WhatsApp can still retain the privacy of users’ messages but sacrifice the anonymity of the originator of messages that go viral. The two can be mutually exclusive or independent of each other. WhatsApp seems to deliberately conflate the two in its argument in court to resist making the change. For example, a whistle-blower wants anonymity but not privacy of their content while people in a WhatsApp group want privacy of their content but not anonymity within that group.
If one agrees that it is socially desirable to coax WhatsApp to disclose the original sender of a certain viral message, the question is, who should it be disclosed to? This is where the Indian government’s argument that only it can have access to this information is dangerous and untenable.
The government’s proposal to ask WhatsApp to disclose the originator is sound but its demand for exclusivity and control over this process is unacceptable and must be resisted. We live in times when the government of India demands X (formerly Twitter) to shut down accounts critical of it and forces Twitter India to hire a ‘government agent’ as an employee with full access to sensitive user data, as revealed by the company’s former security chief Peiter Zatko last year, in a testimony to the United States Congress.
The Indian state is untrustworthy and capable of misuse to be the sole trustee of sensitive information of its citizens, such as the originator of viral WhatsApp messages. The only solution is to make this information available publicly to all those who have received the viral message. WhatsApp already has the feature to show forwarded and viral messages to recipients. It can also show the originator’s identity of only such viral messages to all its recipients. This way, it fulfils the need to remove the shield of anonymity while also not making it available only to the government, which can then be used for its own partisan and hostile purposes.
WhatsApp is not a benign private communication medium in India as it claims. It must bear the cross for aiding and abetting, albeit unwittingly, communal disharmony and deaths of Indians. Providing the ability to disclose the identity of only the originator of viral messages to every recipient can be an elegant and workable solution for WhatsApp to minimise the damage it causes to Indian society, without having to compromise on its principles of content privacy.
If WhatsApp claims that it cannot make these changes only for India, then as a liberal society, we must seek to prevent the death of one innocent citizen also, even if it means inconveniencing the majority and asking the messaging app to either comply or leave.
Praveen Chakravarty is a political economist and a senior office bearer of the Congress party. He tweets @pravchak. Views are personal.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)