WhatsApp has announced that from December 7, 2019 it will start taking legal action against people and companies that violate its terms of service by, say, sending automated or bulk messages, or engaging in “non-personal use”. Notably, WhatsApp said it would take action even if an entity merely made public claims of an ability to abuse its platform – in ads, for example. Until now, WhatsApp has only taken action against abuses for which it had found evidence on the platform itself. This development is set to have major ramifications in India – one of WhatsApp’s key markets with more than 200 million monthly active users – where abuse of the platform is rampant. After rumours on WhatsApp sparked a spate of lynchings last year, the government proposed amendments to the Intermediary Liability Rules to better hold companies responsible for the content exchanged on their platforms. And earlier this year, there were reports of political party workers abusing the platform on a huge scale in the run-up to India’s general election.

In the blog post, titled ‘Unauthorized usage of WhatsApp’, the company wrote: “This serves as notice that we will take legal action against companies for which we only have off-platform evidence of abuse if that abuse continues beyond December 7, 2019, or if those companies are linked to on-platform evidence of abuse before that date.”

A WhatsApp spokesperson told MediaNama in a statement that it has taken action to prevent bulk messaging as it was designed for private messaging. “We’ve also stepped up our ability to identify accounts that misuse WhatsApp and ban them from our service,” the spokesperson said.

Rampant abuse before and during the election

In May, a Reuters investigation found that political party workers and their digital marketers in India were using WhatsApp clones such as GBWhatsApp and JTWhatsApp, and software tools that cost less than Rs 1,000 to bypass WhatsApp’s anti-spam measures. Demand for such tools surged during election season, the report said, citing digital companies and sources in the BJP and the Congress. It said WhatsApp was being misused for political campaigning in at least the following three ways:

  • Some BJP and Congress workers used free clone apps available online to manually forward messages in bulk
  • Some used software tools that send WhatsApp messages automatically; these were available on Amazon.in
  • Some firms were offering political workers the chance to go to a website and send bulk WhatsApp messages from anonymous numbers.

The previous month, Huffington Post reported that the BJP was using Sarv Webs Pvt Ltd, a company based in Jaipur, to send its messages in bulk to WhatsApp users. HuffPost established the link through a combination of the campaign expenditure statements that the BJP submitted to the Election Commission of India; a Sarv employee who confirmed that the company was still working with the BJP; screenshots shared by an anonymous source; and Sarv’s own website, where the company said it works with the BJP for “improving information flow to mass scale”.

WhatsApp’s white paper on stopping abuse

WhatsApp released a white paper in February, in which it said it was deleting 2 million accounts a month for bulk or automated behaviour to arrest the spread of fake news and misinformation. The company said over 75% of the accounts were banned proactively, without any user report. It also said:

  • Its abuse detection operates at three stages of an account’s life cycle – at registration, while messaging, and in response to negative feedback that it receives in the form of reports and blocks.
  • Spam accounts try to send high volumes of messages soon after registering. It bans 20% of the monthly accounts at registration. Additionally, messages from automated accounts rarely display a “typing” status.
  • Its system is designed to identify bulk or automated accounts originating from a suspicious phone number or computer network. Attackers had also attempted to game the hardware to try to control several accounts at once.