Proposed changes to IT Act not in line with strong privacy laws: WhatsApp

WhatsApp has not ruled out the possibility of exiting the India market even as it has upped efforts to ensure political parties do not abuse the platform to spread misinformation via bulk messages in the run-up to elections.

 Referring to recent proposed changes to a section of the Information Technology Act, which requires platforms to assist in tracing the origin of content, WhatsApp’s Head of Communications Carl Woog said, “The proposed changes are overbroad and are not consistent with the strong privacy protections available to people everywhere.”

When asked if WhatsApp would go down the same path as BlackBerry Messenger, which gave in to government demands for access to its encrypted consumer messaging system in 2013, Woog was non-committal. 

Responding to a question on whether WhatsApp would consider quitting India, Woog said it won’t be “helpful to speculate” at this time.

The freeware and cross-platform messaging and Voice over IP services owned by Facebook said it is weeding out suspicious behaviour by identifying messaging patterns.

As a way to deal with the spread of misinformation, WhatsApp is using artificial intelligence to identify suspicious behaviour from accounts. The company said it removes over 2 million accounts per month globally for bulk or automated behaviour. Woog declined to provide the number of accounts blocked from India.

As an example of how it identifies suspicious behaviour, WhatsApp said if an account that registered five minutes ago attempts to send 100 messages in 15 seconds, it is almost certain to be engaged in abuse. Similarly, a WhatsApp account that attempts to quickly create dozens of groups or add thousands of users to a series of existing groups is also likely to be sending bulk messages. “We ban these accounts immediately and automatically,” WhatsApp said.

Company executives told reporters here that WhatsApp was intended to be a medium for private conversations and not a public forum. 

“We have, for the last couple of months, engaged with political parties to explain our firm view that WhatsApp is not a broadcast platform. It is not a place to send messages at scale and to explain to them that we will be banning accounts that engage in automated bulk behaviour. And we do this, regardless of the purpose of the accounts, because we’re trying to maintain the private nature of the platform,” said Woog. 

WhatsApp had come under fire in India the past year over several instances of “fake news” or spread of misinformation. In 2018, several people were killed by lynchmobs that were fuelled by rumours spread on WhatsApp. 

India is WhatsApp’s largest market, with over 200 million users out of the 1.5 billion it has worldwide.  Political parties using WhatsApp groups as a way to spread communally and politically sensitive videos, messages, and images is also becoming increasingly common. 

The fact that WhatsApp provides end-to-end encryption and even the company cannot see the content of the messages being sent on the platform makes it the preferred choice for spreading misinformation. 

As social media companies, including WhatsApp parent Facebook, Twitter and others, clamp down on the spread of fake news, private messaging apps are increasingly becoming the medium of choice for political groups to reach out to a wider population. 

WhatsApp has agreed to most demands of the Indian government, including setting up an Indian office and appointing a grievance officer, and even limiting the number of forwards at a given time to five. Its new India head Abhijit Bose is also expected to start work soon. However, the company has maintained it will not break its encryption mechanism to comply with the demand for tracing the origin of a message. 

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