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IT Rules 2021: CEO Will Cathcart says WhatsApp hopes to find solution to traceability without breaking encryption

WhatsApp has explained its concerns around traceability to the Indian government, and will continue doing so in the hope of finding solutions “that don’t touch encryption”, said WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart. Speaking to Big Technology Podcast host Alex Kantrowitz, Cathcart termed the idea of breaking encryption “a fundamental threat”.

Cathcart was responding to questions about India’s new Information Technology Rules 2021 notified last month, which prescribe due diligence on “significant social media intermediaries” such as WhatsApp. WhatsApp, with over 530 million registered users in India (according to figures released by the Indian government), is required to enable traceability on its platform. This traceability is considered to be antithetical to end-to-end encryption used by messaging platforms such as WhatsApp.

For more details on this, read our summary of the IT Rules with respect to internet and social media intermediaries. 

In the podcast, Cathcart was asked whether WhatsApp would break encryption, just exit India altogether. While explaining that the company is still trying to understand the Rules, he said that WhatsApp currently doesn’t keep a record of messages sent over the platform, and there is no easy way to keep such records without knowing the content of the messages (because of E2E encryption). Additionally, he said there are “privacy implications” to recording such data.

“So, we’ve been pretty opposed to it… We’ve been consistently opposed to it. There’s actually been an ongoing conversation in India and Brazil and some other places,” he said, adding that WhatsApp is also fighting

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‘We’ll explain to the government’

Cathcart said that the core origin of traceability out of concerns around misinformation, alluding to instances of WhatsApp being used to fuel violence. He said that WhatsApp has tried to address this issue in its own way (such as implementing forwarding restrictions in India). “Our hope is that we can find a way to end up with solutions that don’t touch encryption,” he said.

But what happens if WhatsApp isn’t able to make its case? Will it leave India? Cathcart refused to answer the question directly, and instead hopes for a solution that doesn’t break encryption. “I’m not going to give you an ultimatum, like here’s exactly what we’re going to do anywhere in the world. We face this in a bunch of places, and we’ve been blocked in places. There’s a lot of places where we take the risk every day that we may just not be able to operate tomorrow because we might get blocked,” he said.

On WhatsApp’s privacy policy fiasco

Cathcart also weighed in on the company’s controversial privacy policy update in India. In January, WhatsApp had started alerting users about its updated privacy policy, which they needed to be accept before February 8 or lose access to the app altogether. The new policy potentially allows for more data sharing between Facebook and WhatsApp, causing concerned users to migrate to competitor platforms such as Signal and Telegram. Soon enough, WhatsApp had to defer the policy update by three months, during which it has been trying to make its case to users.

While adding that the policy doesn’t affect the privacy of personal messages, he said it only described WhatsApp Business features that can be used by users to communicate with businesses. However, in view of the backlash, Kantrowitz asked whether it was in WhatsApp’s interest to dissociate its data from Facebook advertising data.

Cathcart replied that WhatsApp itself doesn’t have any ads, and the company cannot see personal messages. “[W]e do have a lot of businesses on WhatsApp who want to advertise on Facebook or on Instagram, and instead of having people who see those ads go to a website, have them message the business on WhatsApp […] So, they run these ads on Facebook where the button says, “Message me on WhatsApp.” You only see that ad if you have WhatsApp on your phone, and if you’re clicking those ads on Facebook, obviously that changes the ads that you see on Facebook.”

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