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Whatsapp has rejected Modi government’s demand for making software to trace origin of a message on its platform, said media reports.

The response has prompted the government to consider issuing new, stringent guidelines by September to amplify the accountability of internet and social media companies under Indian law and to ensure they react quickly to stop the spread of rumours or offensive content on their platforms, according to a report in The Economic Times, quoting an official.

A WhatsApp spokesperson said, “Building traceability would undermine end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating the potential for serious misuse. WhatsApp will not weaken the privacy protections we provide.”

People rely on WhatsApp for all kinds of “sensitive conversations”, including with their doctors, banks and families. “Our focus remains on working closer with others in India to educate people about misinformation and help keep people safe,” the spokesperson added.

WhatsApp Head Chris Daniels had met IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad earlier this week. After the meeting, Prasad told reporters that the government has asked WhatsApp to set up a local corporate entity and find a technology solution to trace the origin of fake messages circulated through its platform as well as appoint a grievance officer. He acknowledged the role played by the Facebook-owned company in India’s digital story, but was stern that WhatsApp could face abetment charges if it did not take action to tackle the issue of fake news being circulated on its platform.

Daniels had declined to comment on the proceedings after the meeting. Briefing reporters on his talks with WhatsApp’s Daniels, minister Prasad said the company (WhatsApp) has agreed to set up a corporate entity in India, appoint a grievance officer in the country as well as follow the local laws of the land.

The Indian government has served two notices to WhatsApp seeking details of actions it has taken to curb the menace. In its response, WhatsApp had informed that it is building a local team, including having an India head, and has introduced new features to let its users identify forwarded messages.

WhatsApp has also restricted the number of forwards that can be done at a time. Besides, the company is also running advocacy and education programme to help people spot fake news. Last month, WhatsApp top executives, including COO Matthew Idema, met IT Secretary and other Indian government officials to outline various steps being taken by the company on the issue.

Now, with WhatsApp refusing to build software to trace origin of messages, the government is contemplating notification of fresh clauses under existing intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, said ET quoting an official.

“The draft of the guidelines is ready and a legal firm is vetting it. It should be out by September,” the person said.

The proposed guidelines will mandate global internet and social media firms to name a grievance officer in the country tasked with responding to complaints within a few hours, as well as ensure there is traceability of content.

The intermediary guidelines under Section 79 of the IT Act, which was notified in 2011, mandates companies to follow “due diligence” and allowed time up to 36 hours for companies to remove objectionable content and name a grievance officer on its website for response.

However, these guidelines were not stringently enforced. Currently, internet firms such as Google and Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp, are categorised as intermediaries which act as facilitators and do not actively take part in creating or modifying information.

“The ball is now in our court, we have to come out with guidelines under Section 79 of the IT Act and then we can take it to WhatsApp (or any other internet company) and say you are not complying with them,” the government officer told ET. “These will provide us with tools to enforce (things), right now they say that they are endto-end encrypted so can’t trace the origin of messages,” the official said.

The move by the government to mandate the traceability of messages circulated will open up a “can of worms” since the law will also be binding on text messages on cellular networks, said the ET report quoting legal experts.

“The government can’t expect officials of companies to take decisions on content within a few hours, something the courts will take many years to decide,” said Rahul Matthan, partner at law firm Trilegal. “There are some sites such as Facebook which curate the news feed and play some control, and we can put responsibility on them, but all messages don’t need to be reviewed to solve this,” ET quoted him as saying.

The report said privacy experts are of the view that the proposed guidelines, if enforced, could potentially violate the Supreme Court’s past verdict during the 2015 Shreya Singhal judgement.

“The Section 79 rules were subject to review and reading down by the Supreme Court of India in its landmark Shreya Singhal judgment. Any change to them would impact constitutional rights, and requires great care and open discussion,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, global policy director at Access Now, a digital advocacy group. “It’s unfortunate that the government body tasked to manage this — the Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee –appears to not be meeting or engaging with stakeholders publicly.”

Trilegal’s Matthan said the Supreme Court has asked the government to come up with a law against lynching and not against the messenger. “The legislature can’t amend the concepts which have been laid down by the apex court during the Singhal judgement,” he added.

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