WhatsApp, a messaging powerhouse with a staggering 500 million users in India, has long been the nation’s preferred mode of digital conversation. However, the instant messaging platform is also a breeding ground for the proliferation of deepfakes and spam messages, particularly during election season. As India gears up for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, the government is considering enforcing a controversial law requiring WhatsApp to disclose the messages’ original senders. The move aims at combatting the dissemination of troublesome AI-generated deepfake images and videos that wreak havoc on the platform.
WhatsApp, operating under the umbrella of Meta Platforms, Inc. (NASDAQ: META), approaches the government’s user information-sharing proposal with caution. The company argued that sharing users’ personal information can invade their privacy. What’s noteworthy is their claim of not having access to the content of private conversations between individuals, which adds an extra layer of complexity to the debate.
What is Deepfake?
For those who might not be familiar with the term, a deepfake is a clever blend of “deep learning” and “fake.” It’s a kind of fake video or audio recording where Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is used to make someone look or sound like a completely different person. These fake videos can be used to mislead or trick people, and they look very real. For example, you might come across a video where it seems like our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is saying something. However, be cautious, as it could be nothing more than a deepfake – a video created by using this AI to make it look like Modi said those things, even though he didn’t.
The rise in usage of AI technology has raised concerns about the spread of misinformation and its potential misuse. Consequently, the government and research organizations are actively engaged in developing methods to detect and mitigate the impact of these deceptive videos.
Government Steps In
The Indian Express was the first to break the news, revealing significant development in the ongoing WhatsApp saga. It appears that the Indian government is all set to dispatch a formal notice to WhatsApp, demanding the revelation of the identities of individuals responsible for initiating the distribution of those deceptive political videos. This move aligns with the Information Technology (IT) Rules of 2021 and carries the mission to safeguard the overall integrity of the nation. It’s a pivotal step, underscoring the government’s commitment to preserving the sanctity of India in the face of a digitally challenging landscape.
The Information Technology (IT) Rules specify that online messaging companies must disclose the identity of the individual who initiates the sending of a specific message on their platform. This requirement, often referred to informally as “traceability,” can be enforced through an order issued by either a court or the government. It’s important to note that these orders, whether issued by a court or the government, can only be granted for specific purposes. These purposes typically revolve around the prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution, or punishment of an offence related to matters like national security, public order, maintaining diplomatic relations with foreign governments, and other relevant concerns.
“It’s not about partisanship. The videos in question depicted deepfakes of politicians from different political parties. Such fake videos of politicians from across the political aisle have been brought to our notice, which we believe can cause harm to electoral integrity in India. So we are planning to send a first originator notice to WhatsApp,” a senior government official told Indian Express.
The government of India stands firm in asserting the law of sharing WhatsApp users’ details, believing that this measure will not disrupt the normal functioning of WhatsApp for everyday users, whom they refer to as “common users.”
Legal Twists and Turns
The Indian government’s move to compel WhatsApp to share user details is not a new development. As recently as September 2023, in a case involving the spread of a deepfake video featuring a politician, the Tripura High Court overturned a trial court’s order that had requested WhatsApp to disclose the initial sender of a chat containing a fake resignation letter attributed to Chief Minister Manik Saha.
The contentious relationship between WhatsApp and the Indian government has deeper roots. In May 2021, WhatsApp took legal action against the Indian government over new IT laws, contending that these laws would significantly undermine user privacy. The company has also faced privacy-related clashes with the government in Brazil, which resulted in the service being shut down on multiple occasions. These issues highlight the ongoing tension between tech companies and governments when it comes to matters of privacy and user data.
To combat the spread of spam and fake videos, WhatsApp has been working on bringing new features for users to enhance their privacy. The company is exploring the possibility of allowing users to hide their IP addresses during calls. This isn’t just another run-of-the-mill feature; it’s a proactive move to shield users from malicious threat actors. Currently, this feature is undergoing a testing phase, and it’s exclusively available to a select group of Android and iOS users who are part of the WhatsApp beta program.
What are your thoughts regarding the Indian government’s legislation aimed at compelling WhatsApp to disclose user information? Do you believe it has the potential to intrude upon user privacy, or do you consider it a necessary step? Share your opinions in the comment section!