WhatsApp Rightly Refuses Indian Government's Silly Demand To Break Encryption

from the that's-not-the-problem dept

A few weeks back we wrote about the awful situation in India where mob violence has been leading to people being lynched. Often this is coming as misinformation is being spread online. Rather than deal with the root causes of this violence, people have been pointing fingers at WhatsApp, the messaging software (owned by Facebook) that has been the main source of the disinformation. As we pointed out in our original post, it seemed silly to blame the messaging app. We pointed to a compelling argument that the Indian government should be the one taking most of the blame here. In that article, by Abhimanyu Ghoshal, he noted:

Instead of blaming WhatsApp, India’s government needs to tackle the larger issues that are making its people paranoid and vulnerable to the viral spread of lies. Hell, it could even use WhatsApp to do that.

Last year, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is currently in power in the country, was reportedly working to set up roughly 5,000 WhatsApp groups to spread its campaign messaging for the 2018 assembly elections across the southern state of Karnataka, which is home to some 61 million people.

For starters, it should launch a campaign to encourage people to question the veracity of information they receive via social media and messaging platforms. It also needs to remind people about the laws that they must adhere to within the country’s borders.

So, anyone want to take a guess on whether or not the government did any of that? Oh, don't be silly. Of course they didn't. Instead, they demanded that WhatsApp break its encryption to allow for government surveillance of who initiated various disinformation campaigns. Thankfully, WhatsApp is refusing to give in to these demands.

“We remain deeply committed to people’s privacy and security, which is why we will continue to maintain end-to-end encryption for all of our users,” the company said.

The question is what happens now. The Ministry of Electronics and IT in India has said that a failure to break the encryption will lead to legal action against the company. What's incredible in reading the framing of this by the Ministry is that it seems to bend over backwards to want to make sure everyone thinks the problem here is 100% the fault of WhatsApp.

MeitY had written to Whatsapp exhorting them to take immediate steps to tackle the menace of misuse of their platform wherein inflammatory messages were circulated that led to unfortunate incidents. On the same day Whatsapp responded indicating their initiative to mark forwarded messages and to step up efforts to detect fake news.

Subsequently, an unfortunate incident has occurred in Bidar where a 32 year old software engineer Mohammed Azam was killed and this was preceded by viral circulation of rumours on Whatsapp about child lifters. It is regretted that the enormity of the challenge and the rampant abuse happening in the country leading to repeated commissioning of crimes pursuant to rampant circulation of irresponsible messages in large volumes on their platform have not been addressed adequately by Whatsapp.

Why should it be WhatsApp's fault that people are using the platform in this manner? As that report from Ghoshal noted, a big part of the reason why people are lynching others falsely accused of kidnapping is because they have no faith in the government to adequately investigate and arrest those who are actually breaking the law. But, nope, to the government, it's all WhatsApp's fault.

Reports in the media resonate the general sentiment that there is much more that needs to be done by Whatsapp. There is a need for bringing in traceability and accountability when a provocative / inflammatory message is detected and a request is made by law enforcement agencies. When rumours and fake news get propagated by mischief mongers, the medium used for such propagation cannot evade responsibility and accountability. If they remain mute spectators they are liable to be treated as abettors and thereafter face consequent legal action.

In light of the above, Whatsapp has been requested today to come out with more effective solutions that can bring in accountability and facilitate enforcement of law in addition to their efforts towards labeling forwards and identifying fake news. It has been conveyed to them in unmistakable terms that it is a very serious issue which deserves a more sensitive response.

This truly is incredible, if not entirely surprising. The Indian government has failed to put in place adequate institutions for a functioning society, and when things break down into mob violence, rather than seeking the (admittedly difficult) job of fixing those institutions and setting up for adequate governance, they just point their fingers at messaging app. What an utter failure.

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Filed Under: blame the messenger, encryption, india, institutions, mob violence
Companies: facebook, whatsapp


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  1. identicon
    Juhani, 31 Oct 2018 @ 1:54am

    Nice article, did not know this kind of things happen

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