The new rules for messaging apps announced as part of today’s digital/online media regulatory framework will make it impossible for WhatsApp to continue to operate in India in its present form.
One of the key demands placed by the government in front of WhatsApp has always been that it should attach an origin-ID to all new messages.
In other words, if a message is first created by phone no 981000000, then that phone number has to be embedded in the message itself.
The advantage of doing so is that people who create fake news — and any other message that the government considers harmful — can be easily tracked down and jailed.
WhatsApp had refused to accede to this demand, claiming that doing so would impinge on the privacy of its users.
However, the new rules unveiled today requires all major messaging apps to attach the ID of the originator to each message.
They say that all significant messaging service providers “shall enable the identification of the first originator of the information on its computer resource as may be required by a judicial order passed by a court of competent jurisdiction or an order passed under Section 69 of the Act by the Competent Authority”.
What is more complicated is that WhatsApp will also have to keep track of every instance when a messages goes from a non-Indian phone number to an Indian phone number and vice versa.
In other words, if a message is forwarded to a group of 200 people by someone using a US phone number, WhatsApp has to update the ‘originator ID’ when that message lands on the phones of all those who are using an Indian phone number in that group.
If 150 of the group members are using Indian phone numbers, then each of them will be given the status of the author of that message when they forward it.
“…where the first originator of any information on the computer resource of an intermediary is located outside the territory of India, the first originator of that information within the territory of India shall be deemed to be the first originator of the information for the purpose of this clause,” the new rules say.
What makes this even more cumbersome is that when such a message is then forwarded by any Indian to another foreigner, and the foreigner again forwards it to a group containing 100 Indians, then these 100 Indians will also get added to the originator’s list.
In short, a single message can end up with thousands of originators, none of whom may have actually had anything to do with creating the message at all.
PRIVACY AND IMPLEMENTATION
Not only will such a system be difficult for WhatsApp to implement, it will also fall foul of privacy expectations in countries outside India.
Therefore the only option is for WhatsApp to create two apps — one for use with Indian phone numbers and another for non-Indian phone numbers.
The app designed for use with Indian phone numbers will then attach the originator ID along with all messages, while the non-Indian WhatsApp will strip away all such privacy-impinging information from all messages.
This will ensure privacy for non-Indian WhatsApp users, while keep the Indian government happy.
The implementation of such a system is also likely to create some concern among privacy-conscious Indian users, who may search for alternate and less known messaging platforms — especially peer-to-peer and self-hosted messaging platforms.
Peer-to-peer messaging platforms work without a central server, and cannot be easily shut down or monitored or controlled by any central authority. However, traditional peer-to-peer apps are often difficult to install and configure. Berty is an example of such a system.
However, with the rise of blockchain technology, another, more easy-to-use class of peer-to-peer messengers have emerged, such as Dust. They offer the privacy of traditional peer-to-peer systems with the convenience and ease of centralized system.
Finally, there is also the alternative of moving to self-hosted messenger platforms.
These are not peer-to-peer networks, but depends on a central server to work. However, the difference between such self-hosted messenger platforms and others like WhatsApp and Telegram is that in this case, the it is up to the user to choose the central server he or she wants to connect to.
Normally, there will be hundreds or even thousands of such central servers and users can log on to such servers after getting a username and password.
In fact, anyone can run the server software on their computer, which can then act as the central server.
Many companies and educational institutions already run such messenger networks. Signal, one of the most popular WhatsApp alternatives, can be configured to run in this fashion.
Such messaging networks are somewhat difficult for any central authority to monitor or control.
REACTION FROM WHATSAPP
It is possible that instead of compromising on user’s privacy, WhatsApp may allow subscribers from India to sign up using an email ID, as is possible for other messaging services like Facebook Messenger and Google Chat.
This would still offer some level of privacy for users, even if their email IDs are tagged to all the new messages they create.
For now, though, it remains to be seen how WhatsApp responds to regulatory challenges in its largest market.