Local police authorities in parts of the northern state of Kashmir in India have reportedly issued a circular, urging people to officially register the WhatsApp groups they moderate.
This comes after a five-month internet shutdown in the region, which is still ongoing in some parts of the valley. In August 2019, the Indian government blocked internet and telecom services in Jammu & Kashmir to supposedly maintain law and order, after it scrapped Article 370 of the Indian constitution and revoked the state’s autonomy.
An order from Kargil police, tweeted by local publication Ladakh Times, suggests admins have to register their WhatsApp groups at the nearest police station. Moreover, they’ll be held responsible for contents shared in the group.
— LADAKH 🌎 TIMES (@LadakhTimes) January 7, 2020
Currently, there is no Indian law that requires folks to register online groups or be responsible for the content shared in these group conversations. The idea is to prevent people from sharing ‘sensitive content which may pose [a] grave threat to peace and communal harmony in the district.’
While the police may claim their intention here is to maintain law and order, the move might also stifle voice and opinion that goes against the views of the government. Plus, allowing authorities to monitor the content of a WhatsApp group might invite privacy and discrimination risks.
The upcoming intermediary rules that are geared toward content policing on digital platforms might change that with a heavy focus on traceability — a platform’s ability to find the original creator or sender of a piece of viral content.
Companies like Wikimedia Foundation, Mozilla, and GitHub have written to the government with a concern that these rules will invite more censorship online. The aforementioned police order is one such example of that.
Any Indian police agency that claims it can make the administrators of a WhatsApp group legally responsible for messages posted by others there is directly going against an Indian Supreme Court verdict & current Indian law. And no law requires registration of WhatsApp groups. https://t.co/gVRfCVTq9I
— Raman Chima (@tame_wildcard) January 7, 2020
Last month, Buzzfeed News reported thousands of thousands of Kashmiri WhatsApp accounts were deactivated, because they were inactive for more than 120 days.
“To maintain security and limit data retention, WhatsApp accounts generally expire after 120 days of inactivity,” WhatsApp said at the time. “When that happens, those accounts automatically exit their WhatsApp groups. People will need to be re-added to groups upon regaining access to the Internet and joining WhatsApp again.
This is not the first time authorities in Kashmir have asked for admins to notify them about groups. Just last year, before the internet shutdown in August, local police of various districts asked people to enroll their WhatsApp groups multiple times.
Many people in the valley, including a network of doctors and hospitals, communicate with each other using WhatsApp. A mandate of registering and monitoring these groups will incite risks of privacy and freedom of speech. It’s also impossible for admins to continuously monitor and control what other people share in group conversations. Plus, currently, this step is not required by law. Hopefully, sense will prevail and authorities will withdraw this order.