“India is one of the biggest markets for WhatsApp having the biggest user base in the world. Therefore, it is important for WhatsApp to focus on security related aspects of people of India as well,” said Union law and justice minister RS Prasad, adding that he “hopes” WhatsApp works more closely with the police and his own department to use “technology” to curb the spread of malicious content or fake news.
It has taken the brutal murders of at least 31 people over the last one year in ten different states, by lynch mobs mobilised by rumours of child lifting spread over WhatsApp, for the Union minister to realise that there is a grave problem at hand. Little does he realise, however, or maybe he does, that the solution being suggested by him is graver than what is happening right now.
Let us, for a second, consider what is being asked here.
The government is effectively asking a private company to work in tandem with it to monitor private messages and either snitch on them or nip them at the bud, and this is not the least bit reductive.
In his DailyO column, journalist Javed Anwer raises the question, “What if the Chinese are right about the internet and how it needs to be used by the masses, especially those who have never earlier dealt with a medium as fluid, as dynamic, as disruptive as the internet and instant messaging?”, arguing that the use of WhatsApp right now in India is proving the Chinese right. He proposes a middle ground between what the Chinese are doing and what the Indians are not, and that itself is a frightful proposition — simply because there is no middle ground.
The Chinese system, for lack of a better cliché, is Orwellian.
Between blocked websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, etc., to blocked search engines like Google and DuckDuckGo, to blocked instant messaging apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, LINE, KaKao Talk and Signal, there is little option left for Chinese citizens to explore the internet and communicate.
And the alternatives they have are not really alternatives. WeChat, China’s answer to WhatsApp, founded in 2011 and owned by Tencent, has 902 million daily users and of course, very close ties with the Communist government. According to a 2016 Amnesty International report, Tencent scored a zero out of 100 for WeChat’s lack of freedom of speech protection and lack of end-to-end encryption. In fact, WeChat is so heavily monitored and censored, it is almost comically ridiculous.
Last year, when China banned Winnie the Pooh — supposedly because the honey-loving cartoon bear looks like Xi Jinping — reports suggested that if one tries to send the photo of Xi and Obama next to Pooh and Tigger in a group chat on WeChat, other users won't be able to see the picture. Citizen Lab, a University of Toronto research group, after months of analysing how censorship works on WeChat, found that politically sensitive material simply does not get sent on WeChat at all.
Now imagine what RS Prasad is asking of WhatsApp once again.
What is politically sensitive is always defined by those in power. It begins with “we are trying to prevent lynching” (which is a law and order issue, not a tech problem) and somewhere down the line, it will get used for, “we are trying to prevent a crime,” and before you can say "1984", a combination of technology and archaic laws like the UAPA will be used to suppress dissent.
It sounds wild when one hears it — but it really isn’t, and China is proof that this is neither impossible, nor improbable.
When in doubt, one should, perhaps, take a look at what former CIA employee and whistleblower of the US government's surveillance programmes, Edward Snowden, has to say: “It is the natural tendency of government to desire perfect records of private lives. History shows that no matter the laws, the result is abuse.”