In what is being declared as an attempt to preserve public peace and national security, the Indian government is seeking ways to block social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram and Instagram in times of emergency. The authorities are seeking the technical prowess necessary to make this happen after WhatsApp’s answers about the platform’s use by lynch mobs in multiple states across the country were deemed as concerning by the government.
India’s Government Looks at Ways to Block Facebook, WhatsApp in Emergencies
Mob Lynching Incited Via WhatsApp
WhatsApp has played a role in numerous incidents of violence in the country, leading to the murder of several individuals by large mobs on the basis of suspicions, fabricated allegations, and communal differences. In what the government is stating as a means to put a stop to the violence, the Department of Telecom (DoT) has asked WhatsApp to provide them with full support. As a response, WhatsApp is now building local teams, headed by local leaders to better monitor the circulation of sensitive and fake news via the platform. An anonymous member of the ministry has mentioned that the actions of WhatsApp are not sufficient as they have failed to provide the government with what they had demanded.
What the Indian Government is Demanding from WhatsApp
Apparently, the government in India wants to block sensitive information, fake news, and harmful rumors from reaching the general public. However, what the Indian government is demanding from WhatsApp can be summed up as total attribution and traceability of the messages that are being sent via the app. Section 69A of the Indian Constitution provides central government officials the power to block information from getting out on the internet if the following grounds apply to the situation in question.
- As an act of preserving national sovereignty, defense, integrity, and security
- As an act of preserving foreign relations
- As an act of preventing cognizable offenses through public incitement
- As an act of preserving and/or restoring public peace and order
What’s app is probably the main chat application used in India and the risk of it being banned forces its citizens to seek for alternative solutions. WhatsApp has cited that the “traceability and attribution” which the administration is demanding goes against the privacy acts that protect the information of all WhatsApp users in the country. Everything from personal information and financial information to private documents is exchanged via the instant messenger. Therefore, if any private or governmental body gains access to that info, it could lead to catastrophic misuse that would concern millions of Indian citizens.
It should be noted that censoring the internet is not uncommon in India, as many sites are already blocked in the country, including even educational sites such as aidsonline.com and feminist.org. The Indian government has previously tried to shut down almost every pornographic website active in the country, but that did not last for more than a few days. A number of Asian countries, including Malaysia, North Korea, China, Bahrain, and Singapore already have severely restricted internet access, and India is deemed by many to be heading towards the same level of censorship on internet access shortly.
The Solution According to WhatsApp
While the Facebook-owned messaging service has declined the Indian government’s demand of providing them with attribution and traceability, the dangers of potentially lethal fake news and rumors have been acknowledged by the company. They stated that they are taking measures to curb and slow the progression of sensitive information and fake news with the help of the following steps:
- Two lead positions (Head of India and Head of Policy) at the top will be filled soon by local leaders to better handle the situation
- The leaders will be tasked with building local teams to improve the service in India
- Initiatives to educate the local population on how to detect fake messages
- Technical changes to the functioning of WhatsApp to slow down or stop fake news stories from going viral
WhatsApp further stated that to stop incitation of mob lynching and other acts of violence through WhatsApp, it is imperative for the country’s administration, IT departments, and the civil population to work together as a unit. However, the IT ministry of India is not satisfied with the meeting they had with WhatsApp’s CEO Matt Idema and an anonymous spokesperson from the ministry has confirmed the same. It remains to be seen how the messenger and the country’s administration deals with the present situation, although, the latter has already threatened legal action against the former.