Conflict of interests
The sheer size of social media businesses and their overarching influence on political masses have made these platforms hotspot of controversy; often under the garb of misinformation and privacy
The most critical question coming out of the government-social media tussle is where does one draw the line that separates regulation from censorship. This very line defines the contours of privacy, free speech and freedom of expression — the most cherished values of a democratic nation, and also the most longed for privileges for nations that are more tilted towards an undemocratic fabric. So, eventually, the line very much defines the political character of a nation.
India is currently struggling to draw the same line in the context of the growth of new media (which is new only in comparison to the traditional counterpart) in general and social media in particular. The struggle has landed us in a unique situation where a social media company — WhatsApp — has come to the extent of dragging our national government to the courts. This is just one part of the irony. What is more ironic is that the multinational big-tech is in legal and moral conflict with the 'Indian government' to safeguard the 'privacy of Indians', at least it says so.
The government, after cooking it for months, came up with its Information Technology (Intermediary guidelines) 2021 in February to regulate the major part of internet space including the social media intermediaries.
The government's stated purpose is to curb misinformation. While this purpose is endorsed and its relevance duly accepted by the social media and direct messaging companies, they have expressed their own set of apprehensions. Some of the social media giants including Twitter, and Facebook, after registering a feeble protest, have given in to comply with the rules. At the same time, Whatsapp has gone to a greater extent. There could be no doubt that social media companies are liable to comply with the law of the land in the nation but, at the same, won't it be pertinent to ask what's there in the matter and spirit of the proposed regulation plan that has forced WhatsApp to take such an extreme step? There is a need to retrospect if there is a possible way out to implement the regulations without compromising the crucial "privacy" factor. What else is making the big tech reluctant to comply with the regulations? We will also see what are the challenges ahead of setting up a feasible framework?
Misinformation and political discourse
The present regime in the country is fully aware of the power that social media wields. The Indian Prime Minister is one of the most active politicians on these platforms and has a record number of followers on social media (Twitter: 68 million, Facebook: 46 million; and Instagram: 56 million). The Bharatiya Janata Party stands tall in comparison to other parties in the use of social media — from complementing political campaigns to branding leaders, from top leadership to grassroots cadres and IT cells. The party understands the power of social media and, certainly, the powerful must be tamed.
Apart from social media, messaging platforms like WhatsApp, are also used to a great extent in shaping political discourse, many a time through the spread of misinformation. Researchers have gone on to say that the role of WhatsApp in spreading misinformation is no less than social media.
Sohini Sengupta, in 'How WhatsApp Truths Thrive on Middle-Class Anxieties' (EPW), wrote: Social media platforms like WhatsApp have been blamed for unleashing the "dark forces" of the Internet. WhatsApp itself has avoided accepting total responsibility and particularly resisted demands for creating "traceability of messages" by compromising its end-to-end encryption.
From the misinformation point of view, WhatsApp could be counted among the key aggravators. WhatsApp groups are generally homogeneous — some of these attributed to a particular caste, religion, region etc. The regular bombardment of messages dressed in the form which the group members will find to their interest leads to conviction towards a piece of information that may not be a fact. These are generally biased, high on emotion content that presents a unidimensional view of issues and thereby leading to radical viewpoints across groups. Subsequently, the combination of distorted facts and radicalized minds lead to extreme reactions like lynching, harassment etc. towards a supposed enemy framed through the closed group.
It is important to understand that while misinformation is one part of the problem, giving extraordinary powers to the government in the form of regulation might not be a foolproof idea. The political party at Centre, whichever it is or will be in future, will have disproportionate powers at its disposal when it comes to shaping political discourse — having serious repercussions on election machinery, the state of governance and a whole lot of other things.
Before arriving at any conclusion, it is important to take a look at the nature of interests of various stakeholders involved in the tussle — what they want, and how they want?
Traceability or mass surveillance?
The major bone of contention between the government and WhatsApp is the matter of traceability and end-to-end encryption. The provisions of the new IT rules allow the government to demand the information about the originator of particular content, and the social media or the direct messaging applications will be obliged to share the information with the government — this retrieving and sharing of the information can be called traceability. This phenomenon stands in complete contradiction with WhatsApp's foundational principle of end-to-end encryption which it claims restricts the leak of conversation between two users to any third-party entity including even WhatsApp. The messaging app has been projecting this feature as its USP. So, ultimately it is the traceability vs end-to-end encryption debate.
The messaging application has equated the government's efforts of tracing originators of content to the practice of mass surveillance — something which would be no less than a blot on a democratic society. In its FAQ blog post, WhatsApp argues: "In order to trace even one message, services would have to trace every message. That's because there is no way to predict which message a government would want to investigate in the future. In doing so, a government that chooses to mandate traceability is effectively mandating a new form of mass surveillance."
It is pertinent here to mention how traceability can be implemented and what vulnerabilities does it put forward. The Internet Society of India reported that there are two major ways in which the originator of a particular message can be traced — digital signatures and the use of metadata. Both the techniques have their own set of limitations, rather ramifications. In the digital signature technique, the sender's digital signature could be attributed to the message which could be de-encrypted by WhatsApp when required through a judicial order. The method is vulnerable to impersonation. It means that hackers could falsely attribute an innocent person to a message which may force the person to go through tedious judicial proceedings unnecessarily. Further, the ambit of digital signatures is largely limited in the case of cross-platform sharing of messages.
Another method is the use of metadata to trace the originator. Metadata is roughly the information surrounding the communication but not the communication itself. It does not show what exactly two users have conversed about but could reveal the time and location of the communication or even the source device of the communication. These elements could be interpreted and analysed to extract significant information about the originator of the message. This extensive use of database is highly contradictory in today's scenario where data privacy is a central concern.
Apart from the technical factors involved, researchers and experts have raised apprehensions around the sharing of metadata with the government for regulatory purposes. Chinmayi Arun, in his paper 'On WhatsApp, rumours, and lynchings' in Economic and Political Weekly, wrote:
"While the company has clarified that it uses end to end encryption for the content of user conversations, it can access the metadata easily. This includes geolocation, and contact lists. A user merely has to install WhatsApp—and not even actually use it—for the company to be able access this data. Once WhatsApp shares phone numbers—and who is in contact with whom—with the Indian government, it is easy enough for the government to match the phone number with the individual since all phone numbers are linked to government-issued identification in India.
Nothing is known about the threshold that WhatsApp requires the Indian government to meet with before sharing metadata with it. The procedural safeguards for informational surveillance in India lag far behind internationally accepted norms. If WhatsApp shares metadata in response to every executive order, it will very likely enable the violation of human rights: the Indian government might be able to track the members of WhatsApp groups dedicated to people organising to criticise the state for human rights violations."
Going beyond the fundamental debate of should-be or should not-be implemented, some serious challenges have to be considered before rushing in for reforms.
— Law enforcement: WhatsApp highlighted a key concern in its blog post. It says the traceability will completely transform the way enforcement agencies used to cooperate with the messaging application. The agencies normally approach the WhatsApp team with a known account and ask for details. With traceability enforced, the governments will straightaway come with a content to hunt for a perpetrator.
—Technical feasibility: The feasibility of the whole exercise is a challenge in itself. For the implementation of the guidelines, WhatsApp will have to reconstruct the application to be customized to the Indian market. Further, there could be complications when particular content is shared across various platforms. If a person receives a message from email and shares it through WhatsApp, will she/he be considered as the originator of the content! It has to be ascertained in the first place what are the arrangements for cross-platform messaging.
—Potential misuse: The risk of impersonation and social profiling could leave many persons vulnerable to the illegal activities of hackers. Even if a falsely charged person is ultimately set free, what would be the compensation for undue legal proceedings she/he goes through?
— National security: Further, there is a risk to national security as well. Either allowing a safety key to WhatsApp while using the digital signature method or providing a vast database while using the metadata tracing technique could be dangerous from a national security perspective. The wide-ranging data once collected and shared, could be used by opportunistic elements, if leaked in any manner.
Misinformation is a harmful malaise that must be addressed at all costs but the solution to the problem will have to be more broad-based, it should not be allowed to create another set of problems as a side effect. At the same time, privacy cannot be a shield for social media companies to circumvent the legal bind within a country. Both the government and WhatsApp have been in a tussle with each other eying to achieve their respective goals — the debate is however framed over the issues of privacy, misinformation, freedom of speech and expression.
What is lacking in the debate is the voice of the people who will be at the receiving end of whatever decision is being taken. The tussle certainly has to be solved but not without taking concerns related to people into account. The best possible way to do so is by allowing greater deliberation on the issue before the parliament and its committees; that's where people's representatives come into action. Simultaneously, the social media companies and the government, through positive engagement, bargain with each other to arrive at a viable solution, besides the judicial course of action.
Views expressed are personal