Chris Daniels, vice-president, WhatsApp, gave an exclusive e-mail interview to Shelley Singh of the Economic Times before his India visit on 30th of October, talking on all critical issues, from encryption to fake news and payments service to monetising India operations. Edited excerpts:
In your last meeting with the IT minister and other officials in August this year the government was not satisfied with WhatsApp’s response and steps taken to curb fake news, encryption, inflammatory content etc. What steps have you taken since then to address government concerns?
WhatsApp enables over 200 million people in India to communicate with friends, loved ones and colleagues around the globe and trust that their conversations will remain private. In addition to making changes to WhatsApp, we’ve launched new digital literacy efforts and public education campaigns.
People sometimes find it surprising that over 90% of messages sent on WhatsApp are between two people and the majority of groups have less than ten people. We want to keep WhatsApp the way it was built to be – a place for private conversations, like you have in your home.
To do that, we’re piloting a limit on forwarded messages, which has significantly reduced forwarding, we’ve labeled forwarded messages and provided new controls to group administrators. In order to better understand the most effective ways to tackle the societal issue of misinformation, we’ll be awarding grants to twenty researchers around the word, including three in India.
We’re also investing heavily in improving our systems to ban automated accounts and block spammers from abusing our systems. We care deeply about the safety of our users and remain fully committed to end-to-end encryption because of the privacy and security benefits it brings.
You have said end-to-end encryption will not be sacrificed. In that case how do you address concerns of law enforcement agencies in identifying origin of malicious content and so on?
Fighting misinformation is a societal challenge that requires action from all of us – technology companies, civil society, government and the users of our platforms. It’s important to understand that WhatsApp messages are end-to-end encrypted and we do not know — and therefore cannot provide — the content or the originator of private messages.
To do this, we would have to redesign our systems and revise our privacy standards to indiscriminately track user data. We think this is overly intrusive from a privacy perspective.
That said, the limited information WhatsApp collects can help law enforcement prevent and solve crimes. This summer we met with law enforcement officials across India to explain how to request information from WhatsApp during their investigations and how to use WhatsApp as a resource within their local communities.
We also recognize that relying on law enforcement isn’t enough — whenever you introduce new technology, there needs to be broad education to explain how to stay safe. That’s why we’re working with the Digital Empowerment Foundation to conduct digital literacy trainings across 15 states and have launched large-scale public education campaigns with tips on how to spot false news.
We’ve reached 100 million people across the country on the radio, online, and in print. We think education and empowerment of users can make a big difference in the long run.
What steps have you taken to curb fake news on WhatsApp. How effective have these been?
Fake news can come in many forms. The steps we’ve taken are designed to help slow the spread of misinformation and educate users. As I said, we’ve piloted limits on forwarding messages to help stop the spread of misinformation, making WhatsApp one of the few technology companies to intentionally constrain sharing.
Over time, we may find more creative and less blunt ways to address misinformation. We’re also continuing to invest in identifying and banning automated accounts. We do this by training machine learning classifiers to analyze accounts for automated or abnormal broadcast behavior and spam. In the lead up to last Sunday’s election in Brazil, we banned hundreds of thousands of accounts.
We’ll continue to invest heavily in public education and integrity operations as we look to the upcoming state elections and the nation-wide vote next year. Our users can help here too. Whenever you receive a message from someone outside your contact list, we display a message that asks if you want to block or report that user.
We encourage people to use these tools to help us keep WhatsApp safe. I’ll also stress that although we’re very focused on rooting out spam and other types of automated behavior on WhatsApp, it’s very much an adversarial game – even if we’re perfect at catching automated accounts today, they’ll change their behavior and come back tomorrow, so we’re constantly learning, refining, and improving.
What will be the focus of your discussions with the government during this visit?
A key focus of my visit is how WhatsApp can support Indian businesses and drive economic growth. I believe there are over 50 million small businesses in India. WhatsApp is building tools to help these businesses connect with their customers, respond to questions, and close sales.
An eyewear company in Bengaluru called Glassic told us that 30% of their new sales come from WhatsApp chats. We’re announcing this week a project with Startup India where WhatsApp will directly support new Indian-owned businesses and entrepreneurs.
We’re also working with the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) to provide training and best practices to small business owners, both on the ground and via webinars. Of course, I’ll also provide government officials with an update on our efforts to address the challenge of misinformation headed into the very important 2019 elections.
Staffing remains a challenge for WhatsApp. You appointed a grievance officer, Komal Lahiri, but she’s based in Menlo Park HQ. You don’t have a country head. You don’t have feet on ground in India to address queries in real time, face-to-face. How do you plan to address this? Will WhatsApp, which has its largest user base in India, be run remotely from the US?
I’m excited that India will be home to our first country team. We’ll have a Head of WhatsApp India named by the end of the year, who will be empowered to grow a local team that can serve our customers in India as well as work with partners and the government of India. We’re also hiring locally for senior roles in the partnerships, operations, policy and legal teams.
While there’s no substitute for being in India in real-time, I’m proud that many of our most senior WhatsApp leaders, including our Head of Engineering and Head of Operations, have deep roots in India. Their insights and perspective shape WhatsApp today and I trust that will continue well into the future.
As for the location of our Grievance Officer – we’ve made the same decision many other technology companies have made — to co-locate our Grievance Officer with the support teams carrying out her direction. This structure enables Komal, who has nearly 20 years of experience leading large risk and safety operations for large technology companies, to provide immediate counsel on incoming queries and ultimately be more effective for our Indian users.
When do you plan to set up local data centres? The Reserve Bank of India has made it clear that the only option is local data hosting and not mirroring. Do you have any issues with this?
We’re hoping to bring WhatsApp payments to even more businesses and consumers across India. To make this a reality, we began work earlier this year to localize payments data and now store the required payments data in India. We believe it’s critical that Indian leaders ensure a level playing field and that companies operating in India receive equal treatment.
We remain in beta here pending guidance from NPCI, and in the meantime, our teams are turning their focus to building WhatsApp payments for other countries so we can start to bring the same payments services to people throughout the world. We are excited that many other countries are interested in having these services.
In line with RBI guidelines if you store payments data in India, will you also be storing messaging content in India only? If not, why not?
WhatsApp is an end-to-end encrypted private messaging service. When you send a message it gets encrypted on your mobile device and passes through our systems encrypted.
The message only gets decrypted when it arrives at the recipient’s phone. WhatsApp does not have the ability to read these private messages and we do not retain them once they are delivered. Privacy and security are true hallmarks of our product, and we have no plans to change these safeguards.
Early in October, WhatsApp entered into a partnership with Reliance Jio to educate users on how to use the messaging platform. Are you planning similar partnerships with Airtel, others?
We’ve worked closely with Reliance Jio to develop the WhatsApp for JioPhone. I’m excited to see it’s off to a great start! We complemented last month’s launch with an education campaign about how to use the product safely on feature phones.
We took our safety campaign to the streets, with a traveling van tour that included plays to teach people how to use WhatsApp in a safe and responsible way. We’d love to expand our partnerships in India. This will be a big focus for our new Head of WhatsApp India.
How important is India for WhatsApp? How many companies use WhatsApp Business in India?
India is incredibly important to WhatsApp. It will be the first country where we’ll have local WhatsApp teams working with civil society and engaging with the government. I personally find myself coming here more and more. We’ve spent nearly two years working to build WhatsApp payments to Indian specifications so we can help more people participate in the digital economy.
As the world’s largest democracy – India is a nation that values competition, economic empowerment for all, privacy, and respect for individual rights. As WhatsApp continues to grow in popularity in India, it’s my hope that we can continue to provide great products that improve the lives of the people of India and make doing business easier. It’s thrilling to see that there are over one million users of WhatsApp Business products in India.
Overall, what’s the monetising strategy? Are you making money in India?
Currently, we’re approaching monetisation in two ways. In August, we launched the WhatsApp Business API, which enables large companies like MakeMyTrip to send information like tickets to users on WhatsApp. Businesses pay to send those messages.
In the future, we’ll place ads in WhatsApp Status, which is our Stories feature. We think this is an appropriate place for ads within WhatsApp. WhatsApp will remain free for people to use and we remain fully committed to end-to-end encryption.
With our full set of features in place for both people and businesses, we believe WhatsApp will continue to contribute to economic growth here in India.