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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

India presses WhatsApp over tracing sources of fake news

False information has incited dozens of mob killings since last year

WhatsApp and telecom firm Reliance Jio Infocomm have teamed up to educate Indians about fake news. Bloomberg
WhatsApp and telecom firm Reliance Jio Infocomm have teamed up to educate Indians about fake news. Bloomberg

India has asked WhatsApp to start tracing the origins of misinformation spread through its messaging platform, after false reports led to a number of lynchings across the country.

The request was made at a meeting this week between officials from the technology ministry and senior executives from WhatsApp, a senior government official said on Friday.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, has been working to curb the circulation of what Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad termed "sinister" content in India, the firm's biggest market with more than 220 million users.

Such misinformation has led to the lynching of more 30 people since January last year, according to data portal IndiaSpend, prompting Mr Prasad to call on WhatsApp to trace its origins.

WhatsApp has previously declined to trace the origin of messages, citing security issues.

"We have been asking them for traceability," said the official at the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, declining to be identified as the meeting was private. "They are non-committal on it but we are forcing this issue."

WhatsApp was represented by Brian Hennessy, director and associate general counsel, and one other executive, and said it was working on measures to prevent the spread of misinformation, according to the official.

"WhatsApp regularly engages with the Government of India to discuss our commitment to maintaining a private and safe platform for people to communicate with one another," the firm said in a statement. "We look forward to continued discussions on how we can work together towards these common goals."

WhatsApp maintains that building traceability into its messaging service would undermine its private nature and end-to-end encryption, creating the potential for misuse. It has also said it will not weaken the privacy protection it provides.

The firm has since launched print, radio and television advertising campaigns to educate users on the dangers of misinformation. It has also conducted roadshows in partnership with the mobile-phone network provider Reliance Jio Infocomm.

WhatsApp has held digital literacy training for community leaders and law enforcement as well as introduced features on its app such as limits on message forwarding and labels for forwarded messages.

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