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WhatsApp to let group admins delete messages, raising concerns over accountability

Although the feature is still in the design phase, it has raked up concerns over free speech and intermediary liability.

WhatsApp will soon allow group admins to moderate content by permitting them to delete messages of members of the group, according to a tweet by WABetaInfo. The feature is in the developmental stage and is expected to be released as the beta versions for Android in the future.

Once a group admin deletes a message, the following message will replace it: “This message was deleted by an admin.” WhatsApp has not revealed any details about the feature.

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WABetaInfo, a WhatsApp features tracker, also reported that the company was looking to change the time limit for deleting a message to 2 days and 12 hours. It was earlier planning to extend it to a week. Currently, the app allows people to delete messages within 1 hour, 8 minutes and 16 seconds.

The feature, once rolled out, is likely to help admins delete content they deem as objectionable. On the other hand, it will trigger a debate on the liability of group admins for the content posted by the members of the group.

What will be the implications of this feature?

Treads very close to impinging on freedom of expression: Siddharth Jain, Co-Founding Partner, PSL Advocates & Solicitors said that the new feature is ruffling feathers since its announcement but there cannot be a straightforward explanation to it. “It is correct that it treads very close to ‘freedom of expression’ but no freedom is always absolute. This feature is more like a ‘moderation’ which gains importance because some unsavory messages might be imposed upon members unless deleted by the author. However, if this feature is used unhinged, it would amount to a violation of freedom of expression,” Jain told MediaNama.

Not possible for admins to monitor every message: Anushka Jain, Associate Counsel at the Internet Freedom Foundation, a digital rights organisation, said that there will be a situation where some or the other police department is going to give a notice or an order saying that when the admins have the power then why are they not regulating the spread of COVID-19 misinformation or hate speech.

  • Can lead to over-regulation: “The moment you put that kind of onus on a citizen, the person, either out of fear of criminal liability or anything else, will end up over-regulating speech even in situations where the content is not problematic. It can create problems in terms of free speech and expression.
  • Platforms will evade liability: She said that the situation can be likened to intermediary liability as you’re putting a lot of responsibility on somebody who’s just an admin of a WhatsApp group. “It’s not possible for admins to monitor or look at each and every message that comes if it’s a very large group. Another thing that can happen is that these platforms can say that we cannot be held liable because we have created the option for the admin to regulate speech,” She said that the responsibility is being shifted which should be on the platform and not on the person who is not a part of the company.

MediaNama’s take

Nikhil Pahwa, Founder and Editor of MediaNama, said that it creates a problem of accountability and will lead to more legal problems for group admins.

“We have seen historically how group admins have been held liable for messages posted by others in the group. The admins would claim plausible deniability as they would not have controls to delete messages which allowed them to get away with it. Will this mean that law enforcement authorities want group admins to have more responsibility in moderating content?” he said.

Courts split on liability faced by group admins in India

2016: The Delhi High Court dismissed a civil suit for defamation against an admin of a social media group, stating that an admin cannot be made liable for defamatory statements made by any other members of the group in December. The court likened holding the admin of a group accountable for defamation to holding a printing press responsible for defamation for materials published by print media.

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2017: A local court in Varanasi warned that any factually incorrect, rumour or misleading information on social media groups can result in an FIR against the group administrator. The order issued by Yogeshwar Ram Mishra, Varanasi district magistrate, and Nitin Tiwari, Varanasi superintendent of police said: “In the event of inaction from the group admin, he or she will be considered guilty and action will be taken against the group administrator”.

  • A mandate by the district magistrate of Kupwara district of Jammu & Kashmir in April held group admins responsible for all posts on their groups. In August, two youths were arrested by police in Chhattisgarh following a complaint against the admin of a WhatsApp group.

2020: The question of accountability of group admins was renewed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic which saw a rise in spread of misinformation. Mumbai’s DCP Pranaya Ashok issued a prohibitory order stating that group admins on messaging and social media platforms will be “personally” held responsible for dissemination of misinformation and fake news related to COVID-19 and will be punishable under Section 188 of the Indian Penal Code. It said that admins were now responsible for reporting “malicious, incorrect or derogatory content” posted by a group member to the police immediately.

2021: The Bombay High Court held that a WhatsApp group administrator cannot be held liable for objectionable content posted by a group member, in the absence of common intention. Kishor Tarone, the WhatsApp group admin in question, was charge-sheeted under Section 354A (making sexually coloured remarks), 507 (insulting a woman’s modesty), 107 (abetment) of the Indian Penal Code, and Section 67 of the IT Act (punishment for publishing obscene material online).

“A group administrator cannot be held vicariously liable for an act of member of the group, who posts objectionable content, unless it is shown that there was common intention or pre-arranged plan acting in concert pursuant to such plan by such member of a WhatsApp group and the administrator. Common intention cannot be established in a case of Whatsapp service user merely acting as a group administrator,” the Nagpur bench of the court said.

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Written By

I cover several beats such as crypto, telecom, and OTT at MediaNama. I will be loitering at my local theatre and consuming movies by the dozen when I am off work.

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.

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