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WhatsApp curbs India services after spate of lynchings

Government has threatened to take legal action against the platform over sharing of messages that have led to violence.


Instant messaging giant WhatsApp has announced limits on the forwarding of messages by its some 200 million users in India after authorities called for curbs to the service following a spate of lynchings.

WhatsApp said on Thursday it would restrict users' capacity to forward on content to five other "chats" at once and remove an inbuilt feature allowing media messages to be passed on quickly.

"We believe that these changes - which we'll continue to evaluate - will help keep WhatsApp the way it was designed to be: a private messaging app," the company said in a statement.

Whatsapp, which is owned by Facebook, Inc, announced the changes shortly after India's government threatened legal action against the platform for allowing viral messages encouraging violence to be shared amongst users within the country.

Prakash Singh, a former senior police officer, said that "WhatsApp has become an addiction in India".

"The kind of fake news being spread through these platforms is scary and is getting out of control," Singh, currently the chairman of the Police Foundation of India, said.

"Police are being called to put out these fires but it's is the platform which is letting fires spread in the first place. The police have been struggling to prevent these rumours from spreading."

He suggested that government should use "punitive measures" against the platform. "Just like the European Union has fined Google billions of dollars, we should use similar punitive measures against WhatsApp," he adds.

'Rampant circulation'

Earlier on Thursday, India's information technology ministry said the "rampant circulation of irresponsible messages in large volumes" on WhatsApp had not been adequately addressed by the company.

READ MORE: India's top court demands new law to stop lynching

Since the end of April, more than two dozen people have been beaten to death by mob vigilantes across India after accusatory messages suggesting they were guilty of child kidnapping and other crimes were widely circulated via the app.

On Friday, 32-year-old software engineer Mohammad Azam was beaten to death by a mob of around 200 people in Bidar district, about 150km from Hyderabad - a major IT hub - after being accused of abducting a child.

At least 32 people, including the administrator of a WhatsApp group that circulated the accusation, were arrested following the attack, India's NDTV website reported.

According to WhatsApp, users of the platform in India forward more messages, photos, and videos than in any other country in the world.

'Failing' law enforcement

Nikhil Pahwa, co-founder of Indian advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, said that although the measures introduced by WhatsApp ought to be welcomed, the platform and authorities must do more in order to prevent further lynchings.

"WhatsApp still hasn't devised a way to bring accountability to public messaging (forwarding), and I believe they need to do that by attributing forwards to the creators of those forwards," he said.

"[But] The primary problem lies with the inability of law enforcement agencies to prevent people from taking the law into their own hands. People will do that either when they believe that law enforcement agencies won't or can't act, and/or when they feel that they won't be prosecuted for lynchings. Our law enforcement agencies are failing us."

On Tuesday, India's Supreme Court asked the government to create new laws to deal with cases of lynchings, saying "mobocracy" can't become the norm.

Zafar Islam, spokesman of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said that the government is committed to stop the mob lynchings.

"The government is doing everything to ensure WhatsApp and other social media are not misused by vigilante groups or random mobs," he said.

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