With the Lok Sabha elections approaching in 2024 and the rise in the number of Artificial Intelligence (AI)-led misinformation, the government is considering invoking a law that would mandate WhatsApp to disclose the initial sender of a message.
This comes in response to several deepfake videos of politicians being shared on the messaging platform.
The government is said to be in the process of sending an order to the messaging company under the Information Technology (IT) Rules, 2021, seeking the identity of the people who first shared the videos on the platform, Indian Express reported.
Deepfakes are digitally manipulated videos where a person's face or body is changed to resemble someone else, and are often used to disseminate false information.
"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 was quoted as saying in the IE report.
If executed, it will mark the first instance of the Central government issuing an order to an online platform under Section 4 (2) of the IT Rules, 2021.
This move might stir controversy since WhatsApp and Facebook challenged the provision in Delhi High Court in 2021, saying it will “severely undermine” the privacy of their users. The case is currently sub judice.
The IT law provision that the Government looks to invoke is at the centre of a debate given that WhatsApp has called it a threat to its end-to-end encryption system which keeps communications private from even the company itself.
The platform has also warned of potential mass surveillance if the measure is enforced.
However, the government has said that the normal functioning of WhatsApp will not be impacted.
When approached for his comment on the matter, the Minister of State for Electronics and IT, Rajeev Chandrasekhar reportedly indicated that the government was open to the option of sending the notice to WhatsApp.
“The anonymous use of messaging platforms to propagate fake videos and audio is a major challenge we are grappling with. The traceability provision needs to be invoked to create some accountability and put brakes on this practice,” Chandrasekhar said, without mentioning the name of the platform, IE reported.
According to the IT Rules, online messaging services will be required to divulge the identity of the initial sender of a specific message on their platform. The order for the requirement, colloquially known as traceability, can be passed either by a court, or the government.
However, such orders are limited to matters concerning prevention, detection, investigation, prosecution or punishment of an offence related to national security issues, public order, friendly relations with a foreign government, among other things.
The rules specify that no order should be issued if there are other less invasive methods effective in determining the originator of the information.
WhatsApp, which is the most used messaging platform in India, has said that the provision is a threat to its end-to-end encryption system which keeps communications between two people private from even the company itself. It has questioned the technical feasibility of enforcing the measure, saying it will break its security systems and lead to “mass surveillance”.
The government, however, asserts that this measure won't affect the normal functioning of WhatsApp and its “common users”.
Earlier last month, the Tripura High Court stayed a trial court's order that directed WhatsApp to disclose the first originator of a chat containing a fake resignation letter of Chief Minister Manik Saha.
The High Court held that the trial court did not specifically deal with the issue regarding the extent of threat to “public order” as prescribed under Rule 4 (2), before asking WhatsApp to reveal the first originator of the message.
It also questioned that the traceability order was issued merely two days after an FIR was filed in Tripura on the issue of the fake resignation letter.
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