India has told messaging platform WhatsApp to get serious about tracking the purveyors of fake news and vicious rumours. In a meeting with one of its top honchos, the law minister stressed that over 20 lives had been lost in India due to this rumour-mongering. Another important issue had to do with the requirement that WhatsApp establish a corporate office presence here to take legal responsibility under national jurisdiction so that Indian laws apply to the tech titan. A similar request was also made to Google recently about the need for an India presence so that accountability is fixed in what is a major territory commercially for all tech giants: Alphabet’s Google-YouTube, Microsoft-Bing, Facebook-WhatsApp and Twitter, to name just four. With close to 400 million Internet users on mobile phones or other devices, India is a huge market and much of the tech titans’ global commerce through advertising is generated by millions of Indians using their services. The producer-user synergy has been well established, and India need not be chary of offending the service providers.
It is another matter that WhatsApp may have already told India it is not possible to track the first person or entity to load fake news or rumours because of the privacy policies and end-to-end encryption that the tech firms follow. At issue here is whether the tech titans have created such behemoths that they have unleashed forces which cannot be brought to book even when we see the damage being caused through terrorism, pornography, malware and mischievous rumours. The risks of the Internet come along with the considerable benefits of technology that have empowered the world, including India. The World Wide Web is the greatest information highway ever built by man and the services available and the comforts created through the Internet facilitates modern living. What we are unable to understand yet is how to control the genie that is out of the bottle as perpetrators misuse links to spread misinformation. WhatsApp’s restrictions limiting forwards to five at a time may be addressing the problem, but only in a very small way.
What must also be taken into account is that the current national scenario of general unrest caused by clashing ideologies is providing easy fodder for the mischief makers. Platforms like WhatsApp and other social media sites are only the conduits rather than the problem itself. While it would be correct to seek reasonable restrictions, it should also be taken into account that we can’t blame all the problems of our society on modern tech titans, who have promised to work with Indian enforcement agencies. There are laws to punish wrongdoers and it’s up to our investigative resources to find them. India’s heft can bring about compliance with Indian laws through an Indian corporate presence.