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WhatsApp rejects India’s demand to track origin of messages, govt says not a deal-breaker

WhatsApp has rejected India’s demand for a solution to track the origin of messages on its platform, saying building traceability will undermine end-to-end encryption and affect privacy protection for users.

tech Updated: Aug 24, 2018 01:48 IST
Vidhi Choudhary
Vidhi Choudhary
New Delhi
WhatsApp,end-to-end encryption,Ravi Shankar Prasad
Logo of WhatsApp, the popular messaging service bought by Facebook for USD $19 billion, seen on a smartphone February 20, 2014 in New York. (AFP File Photo)

WhatsApp said on Thursday tracing the origin of messages sent over the platform would undermine its “private nature”, prompting the government to clarify that it expected the Facebook-owned service to continue exploring technical innovations, even as they appeared to agree on three other conditions set by India to operate in the country.

The government had asked the global messaging platform to come up with a solution to trace the origin of messages in efforts to curb incidents of mob lynching and other crimes triggered by fake news. WhatsApp chief executive officer Chris Daniels met information technology minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Tuesday, after which Prasad said the government had asked the firm to comply with the Indian law, set up a local corporate entity and appoint a grievance officer. WhatsApp has agreed to the three demands, according to an executive at the firm who did not wish to be identified.

The messaging service, however, said on Thursday building introducing traceability would weaken privacy protection of its users. “(It) would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse. WhatsApp will not weaken the privacy protections we provide,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

India is WhatsApp’s largest and fastest-growing market with over 230 active million users.

The ability to trace the origin of a fake news message shared over WhatsApp was one of the key demands by the government. The platform is not designed to track individual messages, as it does not have access to private conversations over the app, the company’s terms and conditions say.

After WhatsApp made its stand clear on the traceability issue, the government said the service should keep looking for innovative solutions to the problem. “Continue to explore technical innovations whereby, in case of large-scale circulation of provocative and nefarious messages leading to violence and crime, the origin can be ascertained,” said a senior government official who asked not to be named.

Ananth Padmanabhan, fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, said WhatsApp was right in taking the stand. “If they started in this direction (of traceability), the chilling effect it would have on free speech over the platform could be high. Responsible engagement can never be built using fear. Traceability is a tool of fear in a service that promises encrypted messaging,” he said

Lawyer Apar Gupta agreed. “Traceability undermines end-to-end encryption as presently implemented in WhatsApp,” he said.

WhatsApp has drawn flak in recent months over the spread of fake news that incited cases of mob-lynching across the country. In two notices sent to WhatsApp, the government had expressed dissatisfaction. India said the company could not escape its responsibility in cases of rampant abuse and provocative messages, as it raised concerns over the role of social media platforms ahead in next year’s general elections.

A person familiar with the developments in the matter said it would not be “appropriate to invest in this form of data collection which could amount to surveillance.”

Data localisation could negatively impact the pace of innovation and adoption of technology, the person added. “It’s not for me to decide what privacy rules are framed in India but there will be trade-offs implied in what is being asked.”

(Nakul Sridhar contributed to this story)

First Published: Aug 23, 2018 21:38 IST