WhatsApp snubs Centre on false messages: With technology come trade-offs

The government had written to WhatsApp asking the messaging platform to stop the spread of false messages on its platform.

WhatsApp snubs Centre on false messages: With technology come trade-offs

NEW DELHI: WhatsApp has beaten around the bush but effectively told the government that it will do nothing to curb the spread of false messages on its messaging platform, some of which have led to lynchings in some parts of the country. In a long reply to the request from the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), WhatsApp offered to do a number of things, but politely refused to do the one thing the government asked for.

The government had written to WhatsApp on Monday, asking the messaging platform to take immediate steps to stop the spread of false messages on its platform. Of particular and immediate concern were the false messages of outsiders entering some regions to kidnap children to be trafficked to other countries. These messages have been identified as the cause of a number of people being lynched by mobs under suspicions of being child traffickers. The government claims they were innocent.

In its response to the government, WhatsApp listed a number of initiatives it was taking that could help inform users when a message might be fake. But it outright refused to do anything to block the spread of messages that are known to be false or troublesome.

And the reason it gave was simple: privacy.

"People are increasingly using WhatsApp to get advice from their doctor, do business or communicate with their bank - as well as to chat with family and friends. They want to know these messages are private and secure - and that no-one else is reading them. This focus on privacy brings many benefits, though as with all technology there are trade offs. And for WhatsApp, that's the inability to see problematic content spreading through private conversations on our app," read the operative part of the refusal.

"That said, we do have the ability to prevent spam, which includes some of the misinformation that can create mistrust and potentially violence. Because we cannot see the content of messages being sent over WhatsApp we block messages based on user reports and by the manner in which they are sent. We use machine learning to identify accounts sending a high volume of messages (faster than any human could) and we are constantly working to improve our ability to stop unwanted automated messages," the letter from WhatsApp continued.

The Facebook-owned messaging platform the offered to work with police in India to set up passive systems that users could message to check if a particular message is fake or not. 
"For example, the police in Hyderabad have created a WhatsApp account that anyone can message with rumors that concern them. And by working with community leaders to get them using our latest features, they can help keep their communities informed about hoaxes circulating locally," read WhatsApp's offer.

"If you would like to talk further about the actions we are taking and our plans going forward, please let us know. We believe that false news, misinformation and the spread of hoaxes are issues best tackled collectively: by government, civil society and technology companies working together. With the right action we can help improve everyone's safety by ensuring communities are better equipped to deal with malicious hoaxes and false information - while still enabling people to communicate reliably and privately across India," the letter concluded.

WhatsApp's response is now likely to trigger a debate between privacy and public interest, both intangible and vague concepts. The government's response to the snub is not yet known.