The Department of Communications recently told parliament that an aim of the Film and Publications Amendment Bill is to regulate online content in private communication mediums.
This includes services like WhatsApp, in addition to content published on public platforms – whether online or offline.
The statement raised questions about how the department and the FPB (Film and Publication Board) could ever hope to regulate international or foreign online content.
Age-restricting and censoring posts on WhatsApp will be a challenge for the FPB, as it won’t be able to intercept messages or demand message histories from WhatsApp.
WhatsApp doesn’t store messages
WhatsApp makes it clear that it keeps no record of messages sent through its servers.
“We cannot help you recover the messages because we do not store your WhatsApp chat history in our system,” it said.
However, it does provide methods to restore messages for when you switch phones. On Android, it provides for Google Drive cloud backups, while on iOS it uses iCloud.
These backups are not under WhatsApp’s control. The FPB would need to convince Apple and Google to provide unencrypted copies of these backups if it hopes to monitor the private conversations of South Africans.
In the unlikely event this happens, it would still only have messages from those who selected to back up their WhatsApp chats to the cloud.
WhatsApp end-to-end encryption
The FPB will also not be able to intercept your messages.
Since April 2016, WhatsApp has used end-to-end encryption for all messages sent across its platform.
Encryption is on by default and cannot be turned off. These encrypted message cannot be accessed by WhatsApp.
WhatsApp uses the Signal Protocol to encrypt messages, an open source system developed by Open Whisper Systems. The company is highly regarded among information security professionals.
Regulating WhatsApp will be (almost) impossible
The combination of end-to-end encryption and WhatsApp not storing message histories on its servers makes it almost impossible for the FPB to regulate content sent over the platform.
Short of installing Orwellian-style spyware on the phones of every person in South Africa, the FPB has no hope of monitoring every conversation between the country’s residents.