Centre for Internet & Society

In a meeting with WhatsApp’s CEO Chris Daniels, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said India put forward several demands, including that the company must have a grievance officer in India and have proper compliance of Indian laws.

The article by Nakul Sridhar was published in the Hindustan Times on August 21, 2018.

The Union government on Tuesday told the Facebook-owned WhatsApp to comply with Indian law, set up an Indian entity, and appoint a grievance officer in India to who people can reach immediately.

The directive comes at a when the government has pulled up the company for fake news spread on the social media platform serving as a contributory factor in several incidents of mob lynching across the country.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister for Electronics and Information Technology, conveyed this to the global head of WhatsApp, Chris Daniels, who is in India this week. This is the first time that the government has spelt out its key expectations from the platform.

“I told him there have been sinister developments like fake news and revenge porn, which are criminal and against Indian laws. I suggested three points: they must have a grievance officer in India; they must comply with Indian laws; and they must have a local, corporate entity in India,” Prasad said.

Daniels, he added, had agreed to the three conditions. WhatsApp did not offer an independent confirmation or respond to questions.

Prasad said he also told Daniels that WhatsApp would have to comply with Reserve Bank of India (RBI) guidelines to start its payments services in India, saying that the firm would have to store the financial data it collects from India within the country.

After at least 30 lynchings in the past one year were linked to rumours and fake news spread through the WhatsApp platform, the IT ministry sent two notices to the company last month, asking it to curb the spread of such messages. WhatsApp’s chief operating officer, Matthew Idema, had met the IT ministry secretary Ajay Sawhneytowards the end of July to discuss the issue of fake news with the ministry and explain the steps it was taking in curbing its spread.

The application made it more difficult to forward media by removing shortcuts, limited the number of people a forwarded message can be sent to at a time to five, and introduced a ‘forwarded’ label for such messages after the push from the government.

Explaining its broad approach, a top government functionary, who asked not to be named, said, “We cannot accept digital imperialism. India is an open society. We have embraced technology and innovation. But no one should think they can come and do as they like. Firms like WhatsApp must conform to our rules, laws, and address problems.”

Reiterating his demand that WhatApp must find “a technological solution” to trace the origin of rumour-mongering messages, Prasad said, “It does not need rocket science to locate a message being circulated thousands and lakhs of times on the same day, on the same issue, in the same district and same state.” He said Daniels agreed to comply.

But experts believe that delivering on these demands will be challenging. “WhatsApp, according to my understanding, does not store metadata (such as phone number sent from) for text messages that are transmitted using their application or via the web client. Unfortunately, WhatsApp does not make this explicit in their public documentation,” said Sunil Abraham, founder of the think tank, Centre for Internet and Society.

“Therefore, many governments erroneously believe that sources of specific messages can be determined by big data analysis similar to the analysis of SMS metadata from telecom operators,” he said.

Metadata includes information such as the sender and recipient, date and time. “Now it would also include whether the message is forwarded,” said Abraham.