Social media companies have been in the news since the deadline to comply with the new IT rules expired on May 26. A lot has also been written about the new norms and how these affect social media companies. While many have complied with these new rules, Facebook-owned WhatsApp has moved court for clarity on them, said Facebook India vice president and managing director Ajit Mohan, in an exclusive interaction with Fortune India and editorji.
He pointed out that Facebook respected Indian laws and that the social media giant’s aim was to comply with the new norms. Facebook was “fully committed to the rationale behind the new rules that the government has communicated, which is the agenda of safety and privacy of people on our platform. And we’ve actually been investing a lot in this over the last few years, including in the form of new features, A.I. technologies that allow us to remove violating content from our surfaces,” Mohan said.
Mohan, who had said in an earlier interview to Fortune India that the pandemic was a second coming for social media, said that Facebook has been actively engaging with many parts of the government. “Compliance with these provisions does require significant preparation in terms of new capabilities, resources, and processes. And we have been at it since the rules were announced, [but] there are areas where we are working to get clarity,” he said. However, he argued, with the second, deadly wave of the pandemic hitting the country, a lot of employees were affected, leading to a slowdown in Facebook’s compliance. “But the aim is to comply, we are working really hard to implement the operational processes. And equally, we do remain committed to people’s ability to freely and safely express themselves on a platform. I think the government has been vocal that they support that agenda. And, equally, that the purpose is the agenda of safety. And privacy. And we’re equally committed to those as well,” he said.
As for WhatsApp approaching the courts, Mohan said it wasn’t a confrontation with the government per se, but a disagreement. The intent was to comply with the rules. “I think in the case of WhatsApp, we do have a belief that requiring messaging apps to trace chats… it’s the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every message on WhatsApp, which we believe would break into an encryption and undermine privacy. And the challenge here falls into a couple of buckets. One, our belief is that this will require platforms like us to collect a lot more data than what we believe we need. And the challenge with that also is that when you do massive data collection like that, one, it’s counter to how we have designed and run WhatsApp. In many ways, it’s counter to the principles that we have established to ensure that we are able to keep the promise of privacy for WhatsApp in India and to hundreds of millions of users around the world,” he argued. Mohan also added that such a kind of data collection also, inherently, makes messaging platforms such as WhatsApp less secure because it opens up a lot of avenues for “actors with ill intent, especially in the agenda of hacking”.
He also touched upon issues of privacy and the new update on WhatsApp which had led to a lot of confusion earlier, with many people even moving to other messaging platforms, such as Telegram and Signal.
However, Mohan admitted that it led to a lot of confusion. “And I think we could have done it a lot better in terms of how we communicated why we were doing it and the intent behind it. But I think given where we are, we have assured the government that privacy of our users is No.1 on our priority for WhatsApp. And the recent update actually does not change the privacy of people’s personal messages. And I think one of the things that we shared in the last couple of weeks is that we are not going to limit the functionality of how WhatsApp works. Instead, we will continue to remind users about the update as well as when people choose to use some of the optional features like communicating with businesses. And we’re going to maintain this approach until at least the forthcoming PDP law comes into effect,” he said.
“I think in the case of WhatsApp, we do have a belief that requiring messaging apps to trace chats… it’s the equivalent of asking us to keep a fingerprint of every message on WhatsApp, which we believe would break into an encryption and undermine privacy. And the challenge here falls into a couple of buckets. One, our belief is that this will require platforms like us to collect a lot more data than what we believe we need. And the challenge with that also is that when you do massive data collection like that, one, it’s counter to how we have designed and run WhatsApp. In many ways, it’s counter to the principles that we have established to ensure that we are able to keep the promise of privacy for WhatsApp in India and to hundreds of millions of users around the world.”Ajit Mohan, VP and MD, Facebook India.
Mohan also touched on the aspect of how the Facebook ecosystem was helping small businesses, especially during the pandemic. There were a number of reasons, he explained. Small businesses around the world, and especially in India, play a “dramatic” role in the economy. And given the fact that small and medium businesses not only employ a large section of the population, but are also critical to India’s growth, Mohan argued that, especially now, with digitisation occurring at a breakneck speed, and given the enormous popularity of Facebook, the company is compelled to ask what role it can play for this sector of the economy.
But focussing on small and medium businesses is just one part of the story. Mohan pointed out that because of Facebook’s robust marketing platform, it is in pole position to emerge as the preferred destination for these businesses. “It allows companies to derive value without putting a lot of money at stake,” Mohan said.
While the debate is yet to reach a conclusion, the Facebook India head has set the agenda for the social media giant in India.