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Indian elections turn spotlight back on WhatsApp

Indian elections turn spotlight back on WhatsApp

WhatsApp is under renewed scrutiny in Indian ahead of the country’s national elections, which will be held across April and May.

The messaging service has refused to comply with draft proposals requiring tech firms to provide government authorities with access to encrypted messages, and has instead argued that it is identifying and blocking suspicious accounts using artificial intelligence (AI).

WhatsApp’s head of communications Carl Woog described the proposals as “over[ly] broad” and “not consistent with the strong privacy protections that are important to people everywhere”. He added that WhatsApp would be unable to comply with the proposals without a complete rebuild of the app.

Last year, WhatsApp stood accused of enabling misinformation to spread rapidly across India. Defamatory ‘fake news’ messages falsely accused people of crimes, resulting in a spate of violent mobs forming, with several deaths occurring as a result. This year, political parties now stand accused of abusing the platform to smear their opponents.

On this matter, Woog said: “We saw how parties tried to reach people over WhatsApp, and in some cases that involved attempting to use WhatsApp in a way that it was not intended to be used…We have engaged with political parties to explain our firm view that WhatsApp is not a broadcast platform.” He added that any accounts that misused the service would be banned.

WhatsApp issued a statement saying that halting the spread of misinformation was “particularly important during elections, where certain groups may attempt to send messages at scale”. AI tools are allowing the company to identify and block accounts that appear to be sending automated messages, or that are issuing an abnormally high amount of messages.

The tools have resulted in WhatsApp shutting down over 6 million accounts in the past three months. However, the company has not disclosed what percentage of these accounts originated in India. The country is WhatsApp’s largest market, with 200 million of its 1.5 billion active monthly users based there.

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