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India's struggle with hate on WhatsApp

August 13, 2014 11:08 IST

India's struggle with hate on WhatsApp

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Surabhi Agarwal

Several instances have come to light where communal clashes are being planned or instigated through videos circulating on WhatsApp.

The Indian government is finding it difficult to regulate content over new technology platforms such as WhatsApp,increasingly being used to incite communal violence in many parts of Uttar Pradesh.

The popular messaging application has over 40 million Indian users but no office or servers based in the country.

"We are facing several tech challenges in dealing with this medium," said a government official, who did not wish to be named. If it has to stop offensive content spreading through WhatsApp, the government will have to block the entire application.

Several instances have come to light where communal clashes are being planned or instigated through videos circulating on WhatsApp. 

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Photographs: Getty Images

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Surabhi Agarwal

The official said when riots broke out in Saharanpur over the extension of a gurudwara, the government wrote to the global offices of Facebook and WhatsApp and managed to get a particularly menacing video blocked.

However, the problem of such content is growing. 

"The process (of blocking such content) is cumbersome. We don't know who to talk to in such circumstances," said the official. 

Even if the Indian government sends take-down requests, the response is not immediate due to the time differential between India and the WhatsApp headquarters in the United States.

An email seeking a response from WhatsApp remained unanswered.

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Photographs: PTI Photo

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Surabhi Agarwal

The government has faced similar issues while regulating content on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus.

When the United Progressive Alliance was in power, there had been many face-offs between the government and these companies, with the latter being criticised for not cooperating on matters concerning national security.

However, there have also been genuine technological challenges in controlling such content.

In case of a delay or non-compliance with its take-down request, the government has resorted to blocking access to specific pages or URLs by ordering internet service providers to do so. 

However, this can't be done with WhatsApp, a peer-to-peer messaging service. 

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Photographs: Reuters

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Surabhi Agarwal

"The entire application will have to be blocked, as removing specific content is not possible," said an executive with an internet service provider, who did not wish to be named.

Another security expert said it was almost impossible to scrub all offensive content from such platforms. 

Even if you identify and block some of it, new ones will be created. 

"Blocking WhatsApp as a whole is a possible step but it is a tough call for the government as it may nudge it towards censorship."

The expert said having a coordination office in India could "expedite the process as the turnaround time will be faster. However, they can't simply stop it."

Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion earlier this year. The integration process is not complete, which means Facebook's India office can't intervene. 

"Hopefully, it will change once the merger is complete, but there are lots of such issues," the government official said.

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Photographs: Reuters

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Surabhi Agarwal

China and some West Asian nations have blocked such applications over similar incidents.

China is monitoring WeChat, a home-grown messaging application.

News agency Xinhua on Tuesday reported three Chinese government agencies would conduct a month-long "special operation" to monitor WeChat and its competitors.

"Some people have used this platform as a means to spread objectionable, illegal and harmful information to the public," Xinhua said.

A report in the Wall Street Journal says the latest tightening steps up a campaign that began last year to blunt the influence of social media companies in shaping public opinion, casting a pall over a rising number of online avenues for public debate.

It is not clear what tools the Chinese government has to monitor WeChat. 

Xinhua's report said the authorities would rely on tips through calls or email. 

Compared to countries like India, the US has it easier because most of the technology companies are headquartered there. These companies are bound by law to share information with the US government.


Photographs: Reuters

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