Indian Ink
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Indian Ink

WhatsApp is playing divide-and-rule in India

The Indian government needs to ban WhatsApp for a month

WhatsApp’s championing of Indian’s right to privacy is not what it seems (Photo by Dids from Pexels)

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It gave me deja vu to see WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging app, filing a case against the Indian government, and championing the privacy of Indians in the midst of a privacy debate between India’s ruling party and the opposition parties.

This has been going on for centuries. Indian kings fight each other over whatever. A foreigner comes in and attacks one of the kings. The other king silently watches on the principle that ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ Once the first king is vanquished, the foreigner attacks the second king, defeats him, and takes over the land belonging to both the kings.

Seeing a whole bunch of educated Indians silently supporting WhatsApp taking on the Indian government was deja vu, indeed.

What my fellow countrymen need to be very clear on is that WhatsApp/ Facebook is not our friend. They are just modern versions of the colonialists of old, a sort of economy-colonialist who wishes to exploit Indians and steal as much as they can.

Here’s a video of a Facebook official trying to bully a frail old government minister in Singapore (he happens to be of Indian origin) at an official enquiry. The colonial ‘How dare you question me?’ entitled attitude is palpable.

Whatever our differences, we Indians need to unite and kick Facebook out. They need to know the ‘divide and rule’ era is long dead.

Actually, I’m a bit surprised that Facebook is even attempting this. A few years ago, Facebook tried to take Indians for another ride. That was an offer of free internet. Indians saw through Facebook’s plan, which was to control the internet content visible to those taking up the offer. Indians rose up in arms, and Facebook ended up flat on its face. However, Facebook seems to have a thick skin. They are at it again, seemingly championing the privacy of Indians via a suit filed in the Delhi High Court. Even the Indian Government noted the irony of the action in its statement.

What the government is referring to is WhatsApp’s new terms and conditions to its users, which demands they allow WhatsApp to share its data with Facebook. The Indian government objected to this data sharing because it affects the privacy of Indian users. There’s also the fact that WhatsApp does not enforce these conditions in Europe, where many governments react strongly to any infringement on the privacy of its citizens. However, WhatsApp has been trying to bulldoze India into accepting their demands.

Anyway, while this was going on, the Indian government was also in parallel trying to control fake news in the country. As part of this, they required all social media, including WhatsApp to disclose the original sender of a problematical message if the Government demands it. They gave an example of fake messages on WhatsApp being responsible for several mob lynchings, and the need to track down the creators of such messages.

Like I said, at this point, politics came into the picture. India’s opposition parties have been claiming that the government will use this information to target journalists and others who oppose the government.

Yes, it’s possible for the government to misuse user data. But refusing the government the right to identify the person who sent the fake message is not the solution. That’s like taking a gun away from a policeman because he might misuse it. The solution in that example has to be something like making body cameras mandatory for cops. And we need something similar to make sure the government doesn’t misuse its powers.

Facebook’s attacks on privacy have also led to its being engaged in another battle at a global level. The tech giant, Apple had recently enforced a new rule in its AppStore whereby all apps in the AppStore have to reveal what data their app extracts from users. The new rule does not affect Apple’s apps as they don’t collect data or monetize user data, preferring to make money from sales hardware, software, and subscription to their services. Anyway, Facebook finally revealed the controversial amount of data it was collecting from users of Facebook apps including WhasApp. Shocked users quit WhatsApp in droves and switched to other apps like Signal which did not collect such data.

So why is this collection of a user’s data by Facebook an issue?

The answer is in our face. During the pandemic, Indian parents have helplessly observed their children become hopelessly addicted to social apps like Instagram. These apps collect information about the user to understand their fears and wants. Instagram then unscrupulously uses the data it collects from its customers against them. That data enables Instagram to finetune content in a user’s Instagram feed to tap into that particular user's fears, complexes, and worries. This is what makes the Instagram feed addictive, and keeping users scrolling endlessly, leading to sleep deprivation, stress, ulcers, depression, and worse.

The UK’s Royal Society for Public Health surveyed 1,500 teens and young adults about their social media habits. They found that Instagram and other social networks are associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and a “fear of missing out (FOMO).” They can also foster a negative body image and poor sleep habits.

The logic for why Instagram does this is simple: the more time a user spends on the app, the more profit Facebook generates. It’s all about money.

This is why the world has been putting a microscope on social media giants like Facebook.

It must be noted that user privacy has been a controversial issue for a while. Some time ago, the US government had filed a case against Apple for not giving access to data on a terrorist’s iPhone. Apple also had cited privacy as their reason for not wanting to give the law enforcement agencies access to the phone. This was understandable coming from Apple as they do not monetize user data. Anyway, the US government eventually figured out some way to access the data on the phone, and I presume Apple maintained a diplomatic silence on this.

My point is end-to-end encryption does present a problem for tracing the original sender of a message. But sometimes problems have multiple solutions as the US government found out. After all, WhatsApp itself only implemented end-to-end encryption in 2016, and it managed just fine till then. So I’m sure WhatsApp can figure out a solution agreeable to the Indian government if they put their mind to it.

However, WhatsApp championing privacy is an opportunistic attempt to spin the narrative and pretend to be a champion of privacy. It shows that Facebook has not learned from its Free Basics fiasco in 2015. Hopefully, the Delhi High Court sees through their ploy, and gives them a fitting reply.

Sometimes, you have to fight fire with fire. WhatsApp is unscrupulously bending the rules and using the excuse of privacy to try to push its Indian users to agree to share data with Facebook. So the Indian government should have no qualms about finding some excuse to temporarily ban Facebook. This would cause panicked WhatsApp users to switch to Signal or Telegram. Signal is in every way as good as WhatsApp but has none of its privacy issues. Indian users would be far safer and much less likely to be exploited on the platform. Signal too uses the same end-to-end encryption that WhatsApp uses so Signal will have to figure out a way to meet the government’s requirement of identifying the initial creator of a message. If not, we may need to switch to Telegram or some other app that can meet this requirement.

Putting a temporary ban on WhatsApp might break its current monopolistic control over the Indian messaging market. The only reason WhatsApp users are not switching to Signal is inertia. They need to take the trouble to download the Signal app, set it up, and get their friends and groups to migrate. This is not too hard actually but it’s inconvenient which makes it feel like a humungous task.

In order to create a level playing field in India’s messaging app business, the Indian government should ban WhatsApp temporarily for a month. Sure, there will be cries of Indian democracy being in trouble. But these will subside once the ban is removed. After all, you can’t make an omelet without breaking an egg. And this is one omelet that even vegetarians in India badly need.

I mean if there was ever a case of the ends justifying the means, this is it.




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