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Fake news: Centre won't relent, WhatsApp looks for middle path

August 30, 2018 17:21 IST

The government is in no mood to buy the privacy and security argument pitched by WhatsApp, whereas the American firm says traceability will undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of the app, creating potential for serious abuse.

Kiran Rathee and Karan Choudhury report.

With the privacy argument falling flat in the wake of extreme pressure from the government, which is firm with its demands to trace source of fake news, WhatsApp is working out solutions to stop the flow of such messages on its platform.

Facebook's chat app, with over a billion users globally, is training people to spot fake messages and running advertisement campaigns, creating awareness about the effects of misinformation.

 

For the past few months, WhatsApp has been at loggerheads with the government, which has time and again alleged the app was being used to spread misinformation, causing law and order problems.

To fulfil the government's demands, WhatsApp has partnered Digital Empowerment Foundation to create awareness about the need to verify information.

In the run-up to the assembly and general elections, the DEF will hold as many as 40 training sessions for community leaders such as government officials, administration representatives and civil society organisations in 10 states where there have been cases of violence, triggered by messages on WhatsApp.

In addition, the DEF will train over 30,000 of their own grassroots level members in seven of the 10 states.

"Our goal is to help keep people safe by creating greater awareness about fake news and empowering users to help limit its spread," says Ben Supple, public policy manager at WhatsApp.

The app initiated a radio campaign this week to create awareness about misinformation circulated via the platform.

Sources say the stand-off between WhatsApp and the government will not end soon.

The government is in no mood to buy the privacy and security argument pitched by WhatsApp, whereas the American firm says traceability will undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of the app, creating potential for serious abuse.

The company reiterated its position after the meeting between Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and WhatsApp Chief Executive Officer Chris Daniels.

Officials in the IT ministry, however, say WhatsApp needs to agree to the demands or face a ban in the country, where it serves over 200 million users.

"A ban will be the last resort if the chat messenger and other platforms like Telegram are stubborn. We are not ruling out that option. But it will be like capital punishment, which we don't intend to take," a senior official in the IT ministry said.

Over the past few years, countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia have called for data from WhatsApp for cases related to national security and terrorism.

Last year, the UK asked WhatsApp to come out with a technical solution to enable intelligence agencies to access its end-to-end encrypted messages.

The firm’s payments platform, WhatsApp Pay, has also been at loggerheads with fintech experts, who allege it is flouting the National Payments Corporation of India guidelines.

It is ready to set up base in India and is finalising on a chief of operations and its headquarters, one of the major demands of the government for firms planning to run fintech operations here.

The company is, however, keeping quiet on the Reserve Bank of India's orders to store financial data onshore in local data centres.

It is also planning to set up a 100-150 member team and is in the final stages of selecting a head of operations for the chat messenger.

At present, WhatsApp runs all its operations from its base in Singapore.

"To support our users in India and to continue our investment in the country, it's our top priority to hire a local leader, who can help us build a team on the ground," a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

Kiran Rathee and Karan Choudhury
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