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RS Prasad: Traceability will be WhatsApp’s job; WhatsApp demurs

“On the issue of traceability, I have conveyed to them that traceability shall be their job,” Minister of Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad said in an interaction with the media after meeting with WhatsApp’s global head Will Cathcart on July 26 to discuss issues of traceability, appointment of an India-specific grievance officer, and digital payments.

“But in the event that the WhatsApp platform is thought to be abused by rogue, terrorist, extremist elements, by repeating some kind of recirculation of messages, then there must be a mechanism whereby those can be traced to enforce appropriate law and order, and safety and security of the country,” he said.

“For this I have already given, told them very clearly that the mechanism for it will be developed by them and the request for that will also come from appropriately high level so that there’s no tinkering in between. I am very happy to note that the CEO has assured me that they will take prompt action in such matters and address them.”

According to WhatsApp, there are 400 million WhatsApp users in India, the company’s largest market. He also said that there must be an India-specific grievance officer based out of India. Right now, WhatsApp has a grievance officer for India, Komal Lahiri, but she is based out of the US.

Prasad’s statement led to numerous media reports that stated that WhatsApp had assured India of “prompt action” on traceability, in direct conflict with WhatsApp’s position to MeitY that traceability would “undermine the private nature of the app with the potential for serious consequences for free expression, which would be troubling to many users”.

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On queries by MediaNama, WhatsApp sent the following statement on behalf of Cathcart:

“I was excited about the chance to meet with [Minister Prasad] and talk about our excitement about payments built on top of the UPI standard and NPCI. I am excited about receiving approval to launch once we have demonstrated we have done that properly. I also talked about some of their concerns and we are very concerned as well and are focused on making changes to the WhatsApp product to deal with virality, changes like the forward limits that we did a while ago, I shared some of our plans there with the Minister. I talked as well about what we are doing to cooperate with law enforcement, put in place proper trainings, and make sure we are handling requests dealing with appropriate matters. I did reiterate our support for encryption and how important it is for the product. We had a good conversation on that. Thank you very very much for your time sir.”
[emphasis ours]

It’s worth noting that WhatsApp did not support or oppose user privacy and traceability in this statement, but only reiterated their commitment to encryption.

WhatsApp’s vague response comes at a time when the company is fighting against traceability in the Madras High Court. Thus far in the court, WhatsApp has maintained that traceability is technically impossible on the platform, and decryption will undermine users’ privacy and destroy the very platform. As a result, the Madras HC has asked a team of professors from IIT Madras, who have said that traceability on WhatsApp is possible, to submit their report by July 31.

WhatsApp’s tussle with the government over traceability has been going on for the last one year. Despite the government’s repeated demands to enable traceability, WhatsApp has refused to budge.

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