WhatsApp complains that govt’s proposed policies are detrimental to user privacy
Facebook-owned WhatsApp had been the subject of scrutiny and ‘intense government pressure’ in India over the past few months. This is understandable to some extent, given that misinformation and fake news spread via the popular messaging app resulted in a spate of lynchings and violence across the country. Notably, the IT Ministry last year released draft amendments which suggested that social media and online platforms would need to enable tracing of ‘originators of information’ as and when required by government agencies, as per a PTI report.
The instant messaging platform set up a network of 20 research teams worldwide to determine how misinformation spreads online only a month before these draft amendments to the IT Act were proposed. While this had become a pressing matter for WhatsApp, a new report now suggests that some of the proposed government regulations for social media companies are apparently threatening WhatsApp’s existence in the country.
In an interview, WhatsApp’s Head of Communications, Carl Woog told IANS, “Of the proposed regulations, the one which concerns us the most is the emphasis on traceability of messages.” The instant messaging platform WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption to protect user privacy, which means even the company cannot read user communications. While the draft amendments seem to target this feature, Woog told the publication that without end-to-end encryption WhatsApp will be a ‘completely new product.’
“The proposed changes are going overboard and are not consistent with strong privacy protections that people around the world are seeking,” Woog said. He added that in such a scenario, WhatsApp would cease to exist in its current form, “Given the end-to-end encryption we have in place, the regulations will require us to re-architect our product.” Given Facebook’s tone-deaf stance towards user privacy, the statement is certainly ironic. However, Woog does make a very good point.
While WhatsApp is battling criticism and ‘facing flak from the government’ over the spread of hoaxes and misinformation, the government’s policies put the privacy of over 200 million users at risk. For the user, it’s lose-lose. On the one hand, Facebook can syphon user data for targeted advertising and on the other hand, the govt. gets to snoop on user data. Worse still, breaking encryption means that malicious third-parties, or those having Facebook’s blessing, could gain access to user data as well.
The company has introduced several measures to obviate the need for such drastic steps, and Woog mentions that nearly two million accounts are banned every month. “While roughly 20 percent of these accounts are banned at the time of registration, over 70 percent of the spam accounts get banned without a recent user report,” he said.
WhatsApp has also appointed a grievance officer in India, “As part of establishing our operations in India, we have identified a Grievance Officer who can be contacted directly if a user has a concern about their WhatsApp experience and is unable to report it through other channels.”
While the proposed regulations require the social media platforms to ‘follow a process’ to prevent dissemination of fake news, Tech News in its report said that the proposal might strain relations between India and global tech companies.