NEW DELHI: Google and other payment services are getting “unfair” advantage over WhatsApp under India’s regulatory regime and WhatsApp is looking at other countries for a full-scale launch, people familiar with the thinking within the messaging service said.
On the issue of traceability – tracing messages to the original sender – WhatsApp feels the “ultimate issue is about free speech”, one of the persons said, adding that the government must have a public debate before asking technology companies to do “more surveillance”. This will impact all technology companies, he said.
Most people who spoke to ET for this story did so off the record.
WhatsApp’s regulatory compliance is at a similar level to Google’s, but WhatsApp is being “singled out”, the person quoted earlier said. WhatsApp’s payment service is in beta mode and the government has said the messaging service must comply with full data localisation.
Google’s service has been rolled out fully, executives in the company told ET.
Government officials say full launch of WhatsApp’s payment service cannot be divorced from the company’s responses to official demands on combating fake news. Also, the IT ministry feels that WhatsApp is not following the same two-factor authentication as Google’s payment service. In letters to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI), the ministry has also asked questions about data sharing practices between WhatsApp and Facebook along with the company’s data storage policies.
WhatsApp is prepared for data mirroring – storing India data in India while also in foreign servers – and it will have to rethink strategy if it means hosting data in India only, another person said.
Full data localisation will mean “redesigning for India only, and that will slow down innovation for India”, the person added.
WhatsApp has 1.5 billion people globally on its platform and India is its largest user market with 200 million active monthly users.
Another person close to WhatsApp’s strategic thinking told ET the fundamental question is, should technology companies collect more data for the purpose of surveillance, and that the answer will impact Apple, Google, Facebook, WhatsApp and Indian technology companies as well.
A WhatsApp spokesperson told ET in a separate context that the company can’t offer traceability since it will “undermine end of end-to-end encryption and the private nature of WhatsApp, creating potential for serious misuse. WhatsApp will not weaken the privacy protections we provide”.
WhatsApp has been singled out by the government after a series of lynching incidents that started with fake news circulating in WhatsApp groups. The government had demanded that the messaging service, among other things, set up an Indian office and hire senior staff.
WhatsApp, a person familiar with the matter said, is not only appointing a country head and a grievance officer but also dozens of staff. This person said WhatsApp recognises that it should have moved on this front earlier.
He said the messaging service understands that it needs executives in the India time zone to respond to crises in India. He said WhatsApp should have done it long back, and doing this now should improve relations with local authorities.
Government officials said that while the IT ministry appreciates some of the assurances given by WhatsApp, the company needs to give a more firm assurance of compliance with Indian laws especially with respect to technical innovations whereby “in case of large-scale circulation of provocative and nefarious messages leading to violence and crime, the origin can be ascertained”.
The company’s new global head, Chris Daniels, is visiting India this week. He met IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who briefed the press. Daniels hasn’t issued any statement.
Speaking on the WhatsApp issue, telecom secretary Aruna Sundararajan said, “We cannot be blocking the whole platform. The idea is to have evolved targeted prevention or corrective action. They have already discussed metadata (set of data that describes and gives information about other data) that they can find out and do effective grievance redressal.”
“Maybe they will employ AI more effectively; through analysis and metadata you can find out where these mischievous messages come from, where are bulk messages going in an unusual way,” she added.
A senior government official told ET new guidelines are on the way for companies like WhatsApp. “The ball is now in our court, we have to come out with guidelines under Section 79 of the IT Act and then we can take it to WhatsApp and say you are not complying with them,” he said.