With rumours shared on WhatsApp getting blamed for unrest in many parts of India, one district magistrate in Jammu and Kashmir wants to try and solve the problem by making all WhatsApp Group admins register with his office, and be responsible for the material that gets shared on the group. He's warned that the admins would be liable for action under the Information Technology Act, and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. However, cyber security experts have questioned the validity of the order, and the central government has asked WhatsApp to take steps to curb fake posts that stir up unrest.
In recent times, a man was lynched to death in Tripura after rumours spread on WhatsApp, while earlier this week, five men were lynched in Maharashtra following rumours on WhatsApp that they were child lifters. A similar incident took place in Gujarat the week before, when a beggar woman was lynched for much the same reason.
According to India Today, DM Angrez Singh Rana of the Kishtwar district in Jammu and Kashmir has ordered WhatsApp group admins to register with the DM office by the coming Monday.
A scanned copy of the order reads: "In order to prevent any untoward incident/ law and order situation in the district, there is an immediate requirement to prevent the circulation of false/ baked news/ information and rumours through WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter."
"While the freedom of expression through social media is important, the same comes with a responsibility and reasonable restrictions. Therefore, social media group administrators with the ownership of the groups should be ready to bear this responsibility."
The order follows a report by Kishtwar SSP Abrar Choudhary that WhatsApp groups were "circulating rumours, false information and unconfirmed or baked information", the Indian Express noted.
However, there are questions about how feasible such an order is, since anyone can create a WhatsApp group, and these groups aren't public, being available only to their members. When anyone creates a WhatsApp group, they become the administrator - so the relative who started your family WhatsApp group is also a group administrator. What's more, an admin can change other members into admins too - so you might be the admin of a group without even realising it.
Another challenge is that WhatsApp groups are not restricted by geography. The group admin could be in another city, or even another country, and manage a group anywhere in India, with nothing preventing this. In such a scenario, would the DM even have the authority to take the actions being discussed?
"Under section 21W of the IT Act, the government has the power to regulate all intermediaries. WhatsApp admins are considered intermediaries and they must do their due diligence. But how can you certify that a WhatsApp group falls within the jurisdiction of the DM? The order does not ensure how penalisation will take place," Pawan Duggal, a cyber law expert at the Supreme Court told Mint.
Lawyer Apar Gupta, who is one of the founders of the Internet Freedom Foundation also tweeted about this, pointing out that implying causation of violence due to WhatsApp rumours is problematic. "Please look at where these incidents have occurred and compare with a historical timeline of recorded crimes. Will usually evidence faultlines based on identity and group politics," said Gupta.
The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has also sent a statement to WhatsApp asking it to take urgent steps to stem "irresponsible and explosive messages", The Indian Express reports. "MEITY has taken serious note of these irresponsible messages and their circulation in such platforms. Deep disapproval of such developments has been conveyed to the senior management of the WhatsApp and they have been advised that necessary remedial measures should be taken to prevent proliferation of these fake and at times motivated/ sensational messages," the statement said.