Amid a rash of incidents of mob violence spurred by fake news reports circulated online, telecom providers in India have been called upon by their government to investigate methods for blocking mobile apps and social media platforms.
The mention of internet censorship and mobile network access restrictions has raised hackles in a number of quarters, but given the prevalence and scope of several of these incidents, serious consideration is being given to these blocking proposals.
How have things gotten to this stage, and what’s the real likelihood that telecom providers will sometime in the near future be able to meaningfully restrict the capabilities of mobile apps? That’s what we’ll be looking to discover, in this article.
Fake News via Mobile Apps – Stories of Disinformation In India
The call for sanctions against mobile apps reached new heights following the events of July 2018, when residents of Rainpada (a rural town in India) beat five strangers to death after hearing rumors on the secure messaging platform WhatsApp about child kidnappers operating in the area.
Earlier in June, similar rumors on the platform had provoked a lynching in a village in the eastern part of the country. And it’s been estimated that since May 2018 there have been at least 16 such incidents, leading to 29 deaths in India – all due to the spread of fake news and misinformation via mobile apps.
Globally, India is WhatsApp’s biggest market, with over 200 million users. India’s population is reckoned to forward more messages, photographs and videos via the platform than users from any other country. With their wide and rapid reach and accessibility via mobile apps, secure messaging services like WhatsApp are the primary source of information and personal contact for many Indians, particularly in rural communities.
Levels of literacy in India are still comparatively low in many regions. And with no criteria to judge the quality of video and other news reports distributed on social media and messaging platforms, or any basis for comparison with conflicting reports, it’s very easy for information distributed online and via mobile apps to be immediately taken as gospel.
And this isn’t a uniquely Indian phenomenon. As we’ve seen from recent scandals involving disinformation on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms worldwide, the ability to differentiate between real and fake news is a skill that’s yet to be mastered by many across the globe – even in regions where literacy levels are high.
Fake News and the Role of Telecom Providers and App Stores
A lack of discernment on the part of the users hasn’t prevented governing authorities from seeking to lay the responsibility for policing activities on social media, messaging platforms, and mobile apps on the shoulders of their providers – the software vendors, app stores, and telecom services that make them freely available to the general population.
India is no exception. In July, and based on a reference from the Ministry of Electronics & IT (MeitY), India’s Department of Telecommunications (DoT) called for views from the industry and stakeholders on technical measures which could be taken to instantaneously block mobile apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp, in a bid to curtail fake news, hate speech and the spreading of false rumors in times of crisis.
A letter to this effect was dispatched to major telecom operators and industry bodies including the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI), Bharti Airtel Ltd, Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd, Vodafone India Ltd, Idea Cellular Ltd, and Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd. The DoT also announced plans to consult with social media operators on measures to stop the flow of fake news.
Powers to block mobile apps are being considered under Section 69A of the IT Act, which “authorizes the central government or any officer authorized by it to issue direction to block the information on Internet in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, defense of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offense relating to them.”
Practicalities of Blocking Mobile Apps
In effect, the government of India is calling for emergency powers and the development of new technologies capable of the on-demand blocking of mobile apps and related internet services that are deemed to be spreading or aiding in the spread of information that’s counter to the public interest.
Consultation with industry players has been necessary because the technology to do this simply isn’t there, yet. For example, blocking at the Domain Name System or DNS level would likely result in the blocking of entire domains, rather than particular website URLs. This could produce blanket losses of service across the affected areas. And the method isn’t foolproof, as users can change their DNS settings on a laptop or mobile phone to bypass any blocking attempted by their network carrier.
Secured websites, Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), the redirection of URLs, and the use of proxy servers are just some of the other practical hurdles that telecom providers would have to negotiate in order to initiate the blocking of mobile apps.
Players within the telecom industry aren’t happy about the proposals for other reasons. ASSOCHAM, an association representing India’s telecom operators, has stated that blocking mobile apps could “greatly harm India’s reputation as a growing hub of innovation in technology”, noting that apps contributed $20 billion in 2015-16 to India’s Gross Domestic Product.
From a civil liberties perspective, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) in a letter to the Department of Telecommunications dated August 6, 2018 said that the blocking of entire mobile apps would “likely impinge on the principles of freedom of speech and expression” and “harm the constitutional rights of users” at large.
Some Positive Moves
Perhaps acknowledging the difficulties of its proposal, the Indian government has back-pedaled somewhat. An unidentified official has stated that “Meity [Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology] has told the Department of Telecom that blocking such apps during emergency… situations is difficult, and hence there is a need for a reasonably good solution to protect national security.”
On the technical front, WhatsApp has since limited message forwarding on its platform to five chats at a time (among individuals or groups), and has announced plans to remove the “Quick Forward” button placed next to media messages. The company has also launched an advertising campaign intended to educate consumers.
It’s not all good news, however. WhatsApp has informed the Indian government that it’s building a local team as part of steps to check fake news circulation – but the platform has refused to meet the key demand of identifying message originators, arguing that this would run counter to the privacy and secure messaging aspects of the app.
This refusal may have legal consequences, as the Indian government has already expressed its intention to treat the Facebook-owned messaging service as an “abettor of rumor propagation” if adequate checks aren’t put in place to guard against abuses of the platform.
Any such precedents set by India in its attempts to rein in the telecom providers, internet services and social media giants, and to curtail the misinformation spread via mobile apps are likely to serve as a warning sign or model for governments in other parts of the globe.
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