Thursday, May 5, 2016

J&K’s WhatsApp license diktat a regressive step, illegitimate


SRINAGAR: In what can be termed as a regressive step the government of Jammu & Kashmir has issued a notice saying that if you want to create a WhatsApp group in the state you will need to register and get a license.

Irfan Quraishi finds out what make this order a regressive step and illegitimate.
Recently, WhatsApp enabled end-to-end encryption few days ago, much to the chagrin of governments who felt this move would create roadblocks in surveillance.

The notice was first issued from the office of the district magistrate of Kupwara, immediately after the alleged molestation of a girl by the army personnel’s in Handwara town of north Kashmir. The molestation rumour spread on social networking like WhatsApp led to the uprising in the town followed by the killing of five civilians in different firing incidents by security forces.
The order which was later reiterated in a handout released by the divisional commissioner Kashmir says that all the group admins of the existing WhatsApp news groups have to register themselves in the DM office within 10 days. The notice declares that this move will help stem the spreading of rumours in trouble torn valley.

That’s not all, the administration has made clear its intentions to keep an eye on WhatsApp groups and that admins will be held responsible for all goings-on. Government employees have been instructed to refrain from questioning or commenting on the new diktats. The notice also said that the police will take action against those who post incendiary messages on WhatsApp.

Here is the copy of complete order:

 In a time when freedom of speech and privacy are being widely discussed and debated, this is quite a regressive step by the Kashmir state government. It also proves/ shows that the people in charge have little to no idea of how to control what’s being shared on WhatsApp. The order seems to have been issued hurriedly without having any idea of how social these things work.
  1. Simply put, it’s going to be WhatsApp group admin’s neck on line if anyone posts anything that is deemed negative or offensive. And yes, this is not farfetched; we already have instances where group admin has been arrested.
  2. While the circulars do not clarify how the conversations will be monitored, the only feasible way to do it is if the district magistrate or a government official is added to existing WhatsApp groups. Besides, if an admin exits a group, WhatsApp randomly assigns admin status to any one of the group members, according to WhatsApp's terms of service. Ergo, merely your presence in a group can implicate you for content posted by others. This shows lack of understanding on how apps work or law applies to such situations.
  3. What if the WhatsApp group is created in any other state except J&K? While all members may be from J&K and discussing issues (which Govt wants to prohibit). How are they going to stop it?
  4. Even better, how will the Govt find a new group is created on WhatsApp without registration even in their own state.
  5.  Even if let’s say the WhatsApp group if registered – Is it even physically possible to keep a track of all the messages that are being exchanged on the group?
  6. This circular is ignorant of our Constitutional protection of free speech. Also ignores section 79 of the IT Act.
  7. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has not been consulted before the order was issued by the authorities.
In times of end to end encryption, the Jammu and Kashmir government wants a license of sorts for running a WhatsApp group, which is not going to serve any purpose apart from people behind this action getting ridiculed for it. The internet rights activists have criticised the move stating it as unconstitutional.

 "Monitoring the groups is very hard. And it is absurd to hold the Admin responsible for everything on the group. WhatsApp admin can add or remove people; they can't control the content people post on the group. The government should understand that WhatsApp is not the only medium to communicate. There are many apps which allow making groups. They should use social media for monitoring the activities in a manner that doesn't throttle freedom of speech," said Prasanth Sugathan, counsel at (Software Freedom Law Centre, India) in a tweet.

The state is likely to get the distinction of being the first place where you would need a registration certificate to have a WhatsApp group. Many asking how could there be such restrictions on web in an age when the world is moving towards increased privacy and encryption.

Not surprisingly, users on social media are far from pleased with this latest move and are expressing their anger and disappointment. According to the official sources none of the group admin so far has applied for the registration of a whatsapp group, hence proving there are no takers of the illegitimate official decree.

Here are a few pictures which are viral on social networking ridicules the policy makers over curbing the freedom of expression in the state.

Experts say the legality of such a directive is questionable, but even more worrisome is how the government plans to "look at" conversations among citizens on WhatsApp. "This is impractical and will be very difficult to monitor it. Even if WhatsApp is shut down, other applications will take its place," said Afatab Ahmad, a WhatsApp group admin.

However, rumor mongering is also a valid concern, especially in a volatile state like Jammu and Kashmir. Incitement to violence is a serious concern and WhatsApp needs to start engaging more with policy makers and others who work on human rights. Unlike the other major platforms that do discuss their policies and contemporary problems, WhatsApp seems to be less inclined to engage.

Blocking all internet access is clearly an unnecessary and disproportionate measure that cannot be countenanced as a ‘reasonable restriction’ on freedom of expression and the right to seek and receive information, which is an integral part of the freedom of expression. For instance, a riot-affected person seeking to find out the address of the nearest hospital cannot do so on her phone.

Instead of blocking access to the internet, the government should seek to quell rumours by using social networks to spread the truth, and by using social networks to warn potential rioters of the consequences. It is worth to mention that the Former Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria used WhatsApp to counter rumours spread after circulation of a fake photo in January 2015. 

When asked, Deputy Commissioner of Summer Capital Srinagar, Farooq lone said that the decision of WhatsApp registration was taken by the Divisional Commissioner in a joint meeting with top brasses of Jammu And Kashmir Police Including Inspector general of Police and Senior Superintendent’s of Police and Deputy Commissioners. He said that the basic aim is to track down the elements using social networking for rumour mongering. Adding, that it has been made mandatory to register the WhatsApp group being used for circulation of news to regulate the mechanism.

“After proper police verification, the registration will be given to the applicant by the concerned deputy commissioner. It has been also mentioned in the order that these news groups on WhatsApp, Facebook or any other social networking has to mention sources, so that action can be initiated against rumour mongers”, he said.

In the times of e-governance, the state government must make a policy to tackle with the rumour mongers especially during tense situations in-spite of banning internet or issuing orders of curbing the social networking time and again. This restriction affects those citizens who are not involved in any wrong doings and taking heavy toll on businesses which relay on internet, like online shopping, news portals, e-banking etc. 

Irfan Quraishi is a Kashmir Based Broadcast & Multimedia Journalist and works with a national media house. He has previously worked for Day & Night News and Kashmir Times. He has also done journalism fellowship with RNTC, Netherlands & Thomson Reuters Foundation, London. He tweets @ irfanquraishi85.
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