The Indian government’s proposed changes in the Information Technology Act to check use of bulk messages on social media – to prevent the spread of rumors and fake news designed to incite unrest – has sparked a tussle between the government and social-media platforms.
With the general election due to be held in May, state officials fear that political rivals will misuse social media to sway voters.
The government wants social-media operators to set up a system for prompt sharing of information sought by law-enforcement agencies, but the latter have been reluctant to share customer details and messages, citing privacy issues.
The latest row involves WhatsApp, the messaging service owned by Facebook, which has more than 200 million users in India, its biggest market in the world. There are even reports that it may contemplate leaving India if forced to comply.
The messaging platform has said it has a system in place, based on machine learning, to crack down on automated and bulk messaging, but the Indian government’s proposed changes would threaten the very existence of WhatsApp in its current form. It reiterated that WhatsApp does not store any data of users and all messages are end-to-end encrypted and they can be read only by the sender and receiver.
The Indian government has been asking WhatsApp to share the origin of messages in order to track fake news, in the wake of a spate of lynchings in various parts of the country after such fake claims went viral on the service. However, WhatsApp said the proposed moves were against the strong privacy protection that people around the world want.
The company claimed that its spam-detection technology has in the last three months helped to ban more than 2 million accounts per month globally for bulk and automated mailouts. In regard to banning accounts that have been reported by a user, the company said it considers complaints after a user shares offending messages and never breaks encryption.
WhatsApp also claimed it has warned political parties against misusing its platform for electoral purposes. Political parties form WhatsApp groups to communicate with their cadres. In order to check misuse, WhatsApp has introduced a forward label and limited forward messages to five chats at a time.