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Exclusive: Government makes notices to WhatsApp, responses public

In response to an RTI application by MediaNama, the government has made public its correspondence with WhatsApp over concerns about fake news and lynchings. The IT Ministry has previously published press notes on these letters, but didn’t publish the letters directly. In its response to the government’s second letter, which hasn’t been previously reported, WhatsApp said that they have already created a legal entity in India. MediaNama was able to confirm this entity’s registration — WhatsApp Application Services Private Limited. Its existence was first reported by FactorDaily in January in an article about Facebook employees testing WhatsApp UPI Payments. WhatsApp confirmed to MediaNama that this entity, registered in Hyderabad’s HITEC City, was what it was referring to in its letter.

The IT Ministry obscured the names of the individuals from both WhatsApp and MeitY who signed off on the letters.

Read the IT Ministry and WhatsApp’s correspondence

WhatsApp refuses traceability demand

WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted so it’s impossible even for the company to trace messages that end up spreading fake news that sometimes leads to lynchings and murders. In its second letter, MeitY made what it wanted from WhatsApp explicitly clear: “When rumours and fake news get propagated by gullible users or mischief mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability. Therefore, there is a need for bringing in traceability and accountability so that when a Provocative/inflammatory message is detected and a request is made by law enforcement agencies, it should be possible to ascertain identity of the person(s) from whom the message originated and through whom it was propagated.”

The government made that demand again to WhatsApp on Thursday. The company refused to do so, saying in a statement that it will not compromise on its users’ privacy. “In the absence of timely action by you in this regard, it may not be out of place to consider the medium [WhatsApp] as an abettor (albeit unintentional) in the [lynchings],” MeitY told WhatsApp in its second letter, warning the company of legal consequences.

“Tracing private messages would undermine the private nature of the app with the potential for serious consequences for free expression, which would be troubling to many users,” WhatsApp said in its response to the second letter. The company first described its refusal of this demand in a comment to VentureBeat. “WhatsApp will not weaken the privacy protections we provide. Our focus remains working closer with others in society to educate people about misinformation and help keep people safe,” the company said in its Thursday statement.

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Election efforts and NGO workshops

The company pointed out its meeting with the Election Commission in its second response, and said that it was working with civil society to educate new internet users. “We would like to work more with government and civil society to solve these problems together. We’re conducting digital literacy workshops with NGOs focused on community leaders and users to help educate them about the threat of misinformation — as well as running our own ad campaigns,” the company said, adding that it will soon be running radio ads on top of its full-oage newspaper PSAs on spotting fake news.

On election integrity, it said, “”We are intensifying our election integrity efforts in advance of the Indian elections. During the recent Karnataka elections we detected dozens of WhatsApp accounts that were engaged in spammy behavior — all of which we banned.” The ban of these accounts — WhatsApp didn’t disclose which party they were working for — was reported by the Washington Post in July.

Written By

I cover the digital content ecosystem and telecom for MediaNama.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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