IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad on Friday said the government will insist on WhatsApp developing a mechanism to trace origin of messages in cases where the platform is misused by terrorists and ‘rogue’ elements.
The minister, who met WhatsApp Global Head Will Cathcart, said the top official had assured him of prompt action in these issues of “concern”.
“On the issue of traceability, I have conveyed to them traceability shall be their job. But in the event WhatsApp platform is sought to be abused by rogue, terrorists and extremist elements by repeating, recirculation of messages, then there must be a mechanism where those could be traced to enforce law and order, safety and security of the country,” Prasad said after the meeting.
Cathcart told reporters that WhatsApp had reiterated its support for encryption and how important it is for its product.
The Facebook-owned company, which has over 400 million users in India, has so far resisted demands from the Indian government for identifying message originators stating that doing so will undermine end-to-end encryption and affect privacy protection for users.
“This I have told them clearly the mechanism shall be developed by them. And request for that will also come from appropriately high level, so that there is no tinkering in between. I am happy to note that the CEO has assured me that he will take prompt action in these matters and address it,” Prasad said.
The minister said he has also asked the company to appoint a grievance officer for India, who is based in the country. WhatsApp currently has a grievance officer for India who is based out of the US.
Prasad noted that the company has already set up an India office, which was one of the key demands by the Indian government.
Cathcart, who was accompanied by Facebook India Managing Director Ajit Mohan and Facebook Public Policy Director (India, South and Central Asia) Ankhi Das for the meeting, is learnt to have also met stakeholder in the payments sector during his visit.
Cathcart said WhatsApp is focussed on making changes to its product to deal with ‘virality’, such as placing limits on the number of forwards.
“We talked about the work we are doing to cooperate with law enforcement, put in place training, and handle requests,” he said.
Last year, fake news circulated on WhatsApp incited mob fury that led to several instances of lynching across India.
The IT ministry had said that digital platforms cannot escape their responsibility for such rampant abuse and needed to find originators of provocative messages. It had also warned that in the absence of adequate checks, it will treat the messaging platform as ‘abettor’ of rumour propagation and legal consequences will follow.
WhatsApp, on its part, has also undertaken campaigns in newspapers, television and radio to provide users with easy tips to spot fake news.
Most recently, WhatsApp has partnered with Indian School of Public Policy to help future policy makers understand importance of privacy-centric design in product development.
On WhatsApp’s proposed payments service, Prasad noted that the platform is also going into payments service in accordance with the Reserve Bank of India and NPCI requirements.
“I have heard them and have instructed my department that in the event that their platform is complying with these two regulatory requirements, they must be encouraged,” he said.
He also asked WhatsApp to participate in India’s trillion-dollar digital economy vision and said the company is “welcome to explore India-specific products because of their wide reach”.
Cathcart said: “We have talked about our excitement about payments built on UPI standard, NPCI and excited about receiving approvals to launch once we have demonstrated that we have done that properly”.
WhatsApp has been testing its payments service in the country since last year with about a million users, but could not launch full-fledged services as it has been awaiting regulatory approvals.
On Thursday, Cathcart said the company plans to roll out its much-awaited payments service in the country later this year and that its vision is to make sending money as easy as sending messages on the platform.
In a recent investor call, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the test in India “went better than we even expected it would”.
WhatsApp’s ambitious payment services’ blueprint in India has been caught in a bind over concerns around authentication and its data storage practices. In the past, its home-grown rivals have alleged that WhatsApp’s payment platform has security risks for consumers and is not in compliance with the guidelines.
In October last year, WhatsApp had said it had developed a system to store payments-related data in India as part of compliance with the regulator Reserve Bank of India’s policy on storing such data locally.