WhatsApp's influence on society and how it is coping with local laws - India's example

WhatsApp is in the news for over a month in India for reasons good and bad. It would be interesting to know the issues, for people in other nations as much as for Indians.

The latest on WhatsApp in India

  • A government appointed committee finds WhatsApp guilty of being used for spreading fake news and rumors.
  • Government mulls action against WhatsApp and other social sites not abiding by Indian laws.
  • WhatsApp CEO flies down to India and promises actions as required.
  • WhatsApp kicks off campaign against fake news.

The background and full story of WhatsApp in India

WhatsApp is extremely popular among Indians, and an average Indian with WhatsApp on would look at his smartphone at least a dozen times a day - and that is a gross understatement. The user base of WhatsApp is about 200 million!

Of late, this chatting app has been blamed for fake news of all sorts. Rumors spread far and wide through WhatsApp are supposed to be responsible for crowd lynchings that have taken nearly 40 lives across the country. The supreme court wanted government to take strict action against social media, and the government appointed a committee of top bureaucrats to examine the matter. It is believed that the committee has recommended inserting a criminal law to punish mob actions, and immediate police action followed by legal action against against social media officials in case of misuse of their platforms.

Last week, the government had told WhatsApp that it was not doing enough to check the spread of fake news and must find technological solutions to trace origin of sinister campaigns. It is reported that WhatsApp has, citing privacy provisions, taken the stand that it cannot do so. WhatsApp CEO flew down to India and met Indian communications and IT minister. He was told to immediately appoint a grievance officer in India to deal with public complaints. Media reported that he got this message from the minster:

"You must have a proper compliance with Indian laws. We will not appreciate a scenario where any problem that has arisen (here) will have to be answered in America. No, this is not acceptable."

Earlier too, WhatsApp has been in the news, first when the supreme court asked the government whether the government wanted to keep a tab on social media (when the government toyed with the idea of a social media monitoring cell), especially taking the name of WhatsApp.

A public appeal has been made before the supreme court alleging that WhatsApp, which is already testing a payments app, does not comply with the financial and identity norms set by RBI, the country's central bank. The supreme court has asked the company to clarify. WhatsApp is murmuring that it is being discriminated against by the Indian government over permission for payment services through its app. The government has maintained that for providing payment services, foreign entities must locate their servers in India and strictly follow RBI norms.

WhatsApp's actions so far on fake news front

In the face of severed criticism and realization that mass distribution of undesirable messages was leading to mob actions, WhatsApp has limited 'forwarding' of messages to five. A forwarded label is also being put on forwarded messages.

WhatsApp has come up with a full page advertisement on major national dailies to explain its position and has now started a radio campaign to educate users about fake news and what precautions they should take when forwarding messages.

It is also reported that the company is in an advance stage to set up an Indian corporate entity, probably in Hyderabad. Its parent company Facebook has already set up an office in this IT hub of India.

According to media reports, WhatsApp also has partnered with an NGO for spreading awareness regarding the need to check authenticity of messages, so that fake news is not spread through its platform in the upcoming provincial and national elections. This could be in response to Indian election commission's warning that it would take very strict action against fake and paid news during elections. 

The story has only begun, not ended, because WhatsApp has found a huge market in India for digital payments and advertisements. Its rival Google already has a buzzing payments app and has been proactive in complying with Indian laws.

The company's stand on not sharing the origin of 'sinister' messages may yet prove a sore point though the payment app issue might settle down once WhatsApp complies with Indian norms.