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An urgent checklist for WhatsApp’s new India head

A full plate.
A full plate.
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic
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After headhunting for eight months, WhatsApp has finally found someone to lead its India operations.

The world’s largest messaging service platform yesterday (Nov. 21) named Abhijit Bose, co-founder and CEO of the digital-payments company Ezetap, as the head of WhatsApp India. He will take charge in early 2019 and will be based out of Gurugram, Haryana.

“Bose and his team will focus on helping businesses, both large and small, connect with their customers,” the Facebook-owned company said in a statement. He will also oversee WhatsApp’s work to curb the circulation of fake news in India. 

WhatsApp’s India team will be its first full country team outside the US.

Of the messaging service’s 1.5 billion or more monthly active users, over 200 million are in India. So naming an India head was a “necessary step,” said Apar Gupta, a lawyer and co-founder of the Internet Freedom Foundation. “Concerns which emerge from India need to be addressed adequately, and there needs to be senior executives who can take these decisions,” Gupta told Quartz.

The announcement comes at a critical time as WhatsApp hopes to roll out its payments platform in India and is gearing up for the 2019 general election.

Here are five of the most pressing issues that Bose will have to reckon with in his new role.

Payments

At a time when several global players such as Google and Truecaller have made an easy entry into India’s flourishing payments market, WhatsApp is still struggling.

Earlier this year, it quietly rolled out a beta version of its payments feature, inbuilt in its mobile app, and sent tremors across the industry by shaking up reigning giants such as Paytm. Given that it is the favoured mode of communication for about 96% of Indians, with a significantly higher level of engagement, payments was expected to be an easy ride for WhatsApp.

However, its plans got mired in regulatory and political problems.

It faced privacy and security issues after its parent, Facebook Inc., got embroiled in a major data breach fiasco. This dent in WhatsApp’s brand image didn’t augur well for a company trying to make inroads into financial services. Even after reportedly addressing the Indian government’s concerns, the platform’s payment plans haven’t received the green signal, with the feature still restricted to only a million Indian users.

Now, Bose’s significant experience in digital payments is expected to iron out these issues.

Ezetap, which he co-founded in 2011, aims to provide digital-payment solutions for rural and small-town India by turning smartphones into point of sale (PoS) devices. The company’s investors include Paypal founder Peter Thiel, credit-card behemoth American Express, and Indian seed fund Prime Venture Partners.

Bose’s peers from the startup ecosystem see him as the right fit for WhatsApp.

Bahl is the co-founder and CEO of the Indian e-commerce firm Snapdeal.

WhatsApp is also focused on rolling out an app exclusively for businesses in India—earlier this year, it rolled out a beta version for merchants. Bose’s earlier stint as head of product for Intuit’s small and medium (SME) business offerings will be useful here.

“Bose has dealt with regulatory and other problems that have been a problem for WhatsApp. Moreover, he has a fair knowledge about the digital business ecosystem as well as the SME business in general and these are the two areas that WhastApp wants to grow,” said a founder of another fintech company, requesting anonymity.

Data localisation

In April, India’s banking regulator had mandated all payment companies to store data locally by Oct. 15 this year. While WhatsApp claimed it met these guidelines, the central bank officials were reportedly not pleased with its efforts. The messaging giant, they said, was only mirroring payments in India, that is keeping a copy of the transaction within the country’s boundaries.

As a result, WhatsApp’s payment business didn’t get the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) clearance. Then, on Oct. 10, WhatsApp said it had built a system to store data locally and is now complying with the norms.

Now, Bose’s responsibility will include keeping the RBI in good humour.

Fake news

The messaging service has a major fake news problem in India that has even been linked to mob lynchings. The problem is so acute that the company was even pulled up by the government and forced to take some major steps.

“Much of what is shared is unverified and has caused serious problems by enabling the spread of disinformation. Curbing this will clearly be the first challenge for WhatsApp,” Pranjal Sharma, an economic analyst and author, told Quartz.

These concerns are especially pressing ahead of the 2019 general election, given how widespread politically-oriented misinformation is.

“WhatsApp has stepped up public education about misinformation and is working with organisations like DEF (the Digital Empowerment Foundation) to expand digital literacy training for consumer leaders,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told Quartz when asked if Bose would manage its anti-misinformation work in India as well. “With the new team WhatsApp will continue to expand on these efforts. Bose will be responsible for all the efforts.”

Legal challenges

Given the scale of WhatsApp’s misinformation problem, some speculate that it may be forced to break its end-to-end encryption, enabling the government to read users’ messages.

“At present there’s a provision under the Information Technology Act by which the government can specify encryption standards to be used, which may be operationalised by the government,” Gupta told Quartz. “Or it may change the law to say that bulk end-to-end encryption cannot be implemented on an instant messaging platform.”

Monetisation

In the past few months, WhatsApp has taken its first substantial steps towards monetisation.

In August, it launched business products through which companies can communicate with customers. Earlier this month, it announced that it would insert advertisements in the “Status” section of its mobile app’s user interface.

While announcing Bose’s appointment, WhatsApp mentioned its business products had a combined user base of over one million in India. Bose is likely to play a key role in setting the roadmap on this front.