A new WhatsApp feature, enabling group administrators to delete the content shared by a member, may have just made things a whole lot trickier for them.
According to experts, group admins may now face legal repercussions for failing to remove any “objectionable” content submitted to the group.
According to a report by WABetaInfo, a WhatsApp tracking website, group admins have been given access to the “delete for everyone” feature on the Meta-owned messaging network, and when messages are removed in this way, users can see that an admin has deleted them.
Days before the announcement, WhatsApp had indicated the development of a function to “approve new participants,” or vet users before they can join a group. Although the messaging platform claims that the upgrade will enable admins to better moderate content in groups, it may also hold them accountable for such content.
In February of this year, the Kerala High Court ruled that group admins would not be held accountable for offensive posts made by group members.
The 2012 Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses (POCSO) Act complaint against an admin was dropped when the court issued the ruling.
After a group member shared an offensive video clip starring a youngster, the admin was sued.
“He (the admin) does not have physical or any control otherwise over what a member of a group is posting thereon. He cannot moderate or censor messages in a group,” the high court said.
Another complaint against an admin was dismissed by the Bombay high court on the grounds that it was unreasonable to expect the admin to know in advance what group members will post.
However, this immunity may be at risk if WhatsApp begins to spread out the new feature.
Says Amey Sirsikar, an advocate at Bombay high court, “If an objectionable message is sent on a group and the admin, who now has the power to delete it, does not exercise his power after seeing the message, in such a case it could be construed as the admin consenting to what has been posted on the group.”
He adds: “But on the other hand, the admin cannot stop what is being posted on the group.
“Only when a message is posted on the group can it be deleted.
“This does not give the admin the power to pre-censor or moderate what is being posted on the group. Hence, he is not in complete control”
The most popular messaging software, WhatsApp, recently raised the maximum number of members in a group to 512.
According to Sirsikar, this makes the platform perfect for reaching out to the general public. He also notes that providing admins the authority to moderate may limit group members’ freedom of speech.
“Under the Constitution, only the State has been entrusted with the power to restrict the fundamental right to free speech.
“It would thus be improper to entrust WhatsApp admins with the power to restrict individuals’ exercise of the right to free speech,” he further observes.
There are many such grey areas with the new update, he points out.
According to Salman Waris, managing partner at TechLegis Advocates & Solicitors, there is a good chance that the new function could jeopardize the admin’s protection from legal action for content published by other group members.
“They could be held liable for not taking appropriate action in case any offensive or inappropriate or illegal content is posted in the group, especially in light of the reasoning adopted by the Kerala high court,” says Waris.
However, there is no law by which an admin of any messaging service can be held liable for a member’s post, Waris points out.
“A WhatsApp admin cannot be an intermediary under the IT Act. He does not receive or transmit any record or provide any service for such record.”
There is also no law that gives WhatsApp admins the right to censor the content posted on a group.
“However, with the technical changes and new features introduced by WhatsApp, courts, as well as the government, may place such obligations on WhatsApp admins,” Waris cautions.