Adrian Weckler: 'WhatsApp privacy is paramount'
Should Facebook scan our private WhatsApp messages to block words, sentences or images that may be offensive? Should senders of such messages be suspended or reported to the police by Facebook?
Or should private WhatsApp messages remain immune from Facebook scanning, even if offensive or illegal content is messaged?
This question arose after the disturbing aftermath of a tragic car crash on Dublin's M50 motorway recently.
Within hours, graphic images from the crash scene were being messaged and texted around Ireland.
A great many people, to their utter shame, forwarded a particular upsetting image of the deceased crash victim.
The Gardai and the victim's family had to issue public appeals to stop forwarding the images, prompting some public figures to call on Facebook to become directly responsible for the messages sent.
One government TD, Dublin South West's Colm Brophy, said that Facebook should start scanning WhatsApp messages for such content.
"WhatsApp should have made a quick decision to find a way of stopping the sending of such images," he told me.
"I also think that the company needs to look at the accounts of people sending images like that."
Brophy also believes WhatsApp should scan messages between people for "fake news".
"Yes I do," he said. "It's difficult to accept anymore that the companies cannot build in the necessary safeguards."
The problem is that WhatsApp messages are encrypted. For those unfamiliar with the term, it means that no one, not even WhatsApp or Facebook, can get at them.
Usually, we think of this as a good thing. In an era when we're all freaking out about privacy and being tracked, here is a messaging service free from interference.
Apple does the same with iMessage.
But it also means that we're free to be horrible. The forwarding of such an upsetting, violent image as that of the M50 crash victim is clear proof of this.
The question is: should we be free to be horrible? Is it a price worth paying for private messaging?
This isn't an easy question.
Offline, we tend to favour privacy as a default aspiration. This means that we don't install microphones on every street corner or in every pub to listen in for possible hate speech or defamation.
We also have laws that generally protect someone's right to privacy when they make a phone call or send a letter, even at the expense of horrible or offensive things in either.
But it's not absolute. Street CCTV cameras are society's most visible compromise on privacy. Police are allowed, in carefully controlled circumstances, to intrude on someone's privacy if they can prove a reasonable suspicion of something.
Generally, measures like these are accepted. So where do we stand on WhatsApp? Should Facebook be required to ditch the privacy of WhatsApp text messages to root out objectionable phrases or images?
With respect to Brophy and others, arguing for an end to privacy is a tough pitch to sell. When people stop to think about it, I would argue that few will be in favour of it.
It's one thing to be responsible for your users' public Facebook posts, tweets or Instagram posts. It's another to become responsible for their private thoughts, expressed confidentially through a text.
We don't ask Vodafone or Three to be responsible for what we text people on their network. We don't ask Eir or Virgin to police the content of emails.
So it seems odd to ask Facebook to be legally responsible for things said in encrypted texts via WhatsApp.
To be fair to those arguing that Facebook should be liable, there are some reasonable points they might make (though I haven't yet seen them made).
First, you could make an argument that WhatsApp is more than just a texting service. Many people will know it more for its group chat facility than as an SMS-replacement thing.
Its pervasiveness in this way is astounding - schools, community associations, sports clubs and every other kind of grouping now use WhatsApp as a default communication tool.
So if you're consistently sending photos or messages to a group with 80 members, they arguably take on the characteristics of notices or posts, as we understand them on social media networks.
Some might even argue that they're reasonably public.
Facebook itself has gone some way to conceding this nuanced point.
It recently reduced the number of 'chats' (WhatsApp groups with up to 256 members) you can forward a message to from 256 at a time to five at a time. The reason it did so was because WhatsApp was being used to spread dangerous, fake information on a widespread scale in countries like India, with occasionally fatal consequences.
The other strong point that advocates such as Colm Brophy should be making is around illegal imagery, such as child exploitation material.
Facebook actually scans private messages sent via Messenger and Instagram direct messages for child exploitation imagery. If it finds any, it suspends or bans the account sending it.
It can do this because neither Messenger nor Instagram direct messages use encryption by default - you have to switch that feature on.
By contrast, WhatsApp uses encryption automatically.
So why not for WhatsApp too?
The clash here is the old obvious one: privacy versus security.
Facebook is currently riding both horses.
Ultimately, I think it's important to have at least one private messaging service.
Sunday Indo Business