THE SPREAD of falsehoods on the popular messaging platform WhatsApp has led to mob lynchings and other mass violence in India. But because WhatsApp messages are encrypted end to end, the company has no ability to see them or react to them. It’s a complicated challenge that deserves a careful response. Instead, Indian officials are lashing out with a blunt instrument that could threaten communications around the world. Internet companies would have to preemptively remove “unlawful” information with automated systems and allow authorities access to any messages they request, as well as make those messages traceable to their original sender.
The biggest Internet platforms already labor to remove illegal content, but countries committed to free expression have granted those services immunity for user violations. That way, the companies do not have an incentive to over-censor. India wants to jettison this immunity. The inevitable result would be companies fearful of government retaliation squelching speech, with the help of inexact algorithms that cast too wide a net.
Worse still, companies that employ end-to-end encryption to provide private messaging — from WhatsApp to Signal and Telegram to Facebook, which offers a “secret” messaging feature — could not comply with India’s rules without rebuilding their products entirely. Firms would struggle to deploy a separate system to Indians, so this blow would land worldwide. Authoritarian regimes across the globe would have an easier time accessing citizens’ communications, and malicious actors would have an easier time hacking. WhatsApp has spoken out against the proposed rules. Other companies have been quieter, but the trade groups that represent them have submitted filings with India’s technology ministry.
Online misinformation is a threat, in India and elsewhere. Encryption can be a hurdle to legitimate law enforcement. But it is possible to confront these problems while respecting speech and privacy. WhatsApp, for example, has been experimenting with limiting its viral mechanics by reducing the number of times a message can be forwarded. As for encryption, countries including the United States should devise legal frameworks that govern the narrow circumstances under which government can compel companies to provide access.
India’s desire to ignore these nuances is frightening. China and Russia already offer a dangerous vision of a world of splintered national Internets under strict state control. India, it appears, is willing to go along with the plan. The companies involved should say no.