The impasse between Facebook-owned WhatsApp and the Indian government over traceability of messages on the platform is reportedly showing the first signs of thaw. A team of WhatsApp executives held detailed discussions with officials from the Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) on Tuesday on the topic, The Economic Times reported. According to sources in the know, the agenda was "technical issues on traceability" and the videoconference was proposed by WhatsApp director and associate general counsel Brian Henness.
In the wake of around 40 incidents of lynching deaths across the country due to mass misinformation spread on WhatsApp, which boasts over 200 million users in India, the Modi government had stepped up demands for a system to trace the origin of fake messages. In addition, the growing misuse of social media for illegal activities such as child pornography and terror, apart from the government's concerns that fake news may be used to influence the upcoming general elections also contributed to making traceability a key demand. But the US company, till now, had been steadfastly defending the end-to-end encryption it offers, claiming that traceability would contradict its privacy and security policies.
But it seems to be now showing the first signs of willingness to engage further on the controversial topic. "Officials from WhatsApp were in listening mode [during the videoconference] and did not offer any kind of final response on the issues discussed," a senior official told the daily, adding that the company executives heard out MeitY's demands and did not categorically state a "no" or "yes" to traceability.
The company's latest outreach to the Indian government comes weeks before Abhijit Bose takes charge as the head of WhatsApp India. In a statement, the company said that that Bose, who co-founded payment device maker Ezetap, will be joining WhatsApp in early 2019 and will play an instrumental role in building WhatsApp's first full country team outside of California, which will be based in Gurgaon. His appointment comes around two months after the company appointed Komal Lahiri as its first Grievance Officer for India. With these moves the company has complied with the government's demand for it to set up a local corporate presence, and now seeks to address the traceability impasse.
"This was the first discussion and things are at a preliminary stage right now," said another source. More such meetings are expected to follow in the coming weeks given that WhatsApp is keen to deepen its business in one of the world's largest open markets.
For one, it has been seeking government approval to launch its payment business in India. Earlier this month, WhatsApp's global CEO Chris Daniels had written to the Reserve Bank seeking permission for a full-scale rollout of the feature, but its ambitious plans have been caught in a bind over concerns around authentication and its data storage practices. The latest buzz is that apart from WhatsApp, all other major players in the market leveraging NPCI's UPI network have already shared their timeline on when they will begin to store their data locally in India, as per MeitY's diktat.
"[The company] regularly engages with the government of India to discuss our commitment to maintaining a private and safe platform for people to communicate with one another. We look forward to continued discussions on how we can work together towards these common goals," a representative for WhatsApp told the daily when asked to comment on the outcome of Tuesday's meeting.
Significantly, India is not the only country cracking down on fake news on social media. On Thursday, the Australian lawmakers passed a bill that mandates companies such as Facebook and WhatsApp to decrypt messages to curb fake news and terrorism. The bill also allows police and intelligence agencies of Australia to access software of such messaging tools for surveillance.
With PTI inputs
(Edited by Sushmita Choudhury Agarwal)