India fires tough message to WhatsApp: Withdraw privacy policy tweak

Just a day after an Indian court had said that accepting the new privacy policy of social messaging app WhatsApp was a “voluntary” thing, the Indian government, in an unambiguous message, has asked WhatsApp to withdraw the recent changes in its privacy policy.

The government quite simply said unilateral changes are unfair and unacceptable.

In a stinging letter to WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) said the proposed changes in WhatsApp’s Privacy Policy Terms, without giving users an option to opt out, “raise grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens”.

These are Indian tough words. But the Indian government did not stop with that.

It bluntly told WhatsApp to withdraw the proposed changes and reconsider its approach to information privacy, freedom of choice and data security.

WhatsApp has also been asked to provide policy on data and information security, privacy and encryption.

It asked WhatsApp to answer 14 questions related to the proposed update within seven days of the email.

Respect Indians, WhatsApp told

The Indian government did not forget the fact that India is the biggest market for WhatsApp. With over 400 million users in India, the changes will have a disproportionate impact on the country’s citizens., the government felt.

Urging the messaging platform to  properly respect Indians, the government said: “any unilateral changes to the WhatsApp Terms of Service and Privacy would not be fair and acceptable.’ 

Upping the ante, the government asked WhatsApp to provide details of the services provided by it in India, categories of data collected and permissions and consents sought.

The government also wanted to know if WhatsApp conducted profiling of Indian users on the basis of their usage, as well as explain difference between the privacy policy in India and other countries.

WhatsApp has to give details of data sharing with other apps and if it captures information about other apps running on the mobile phones of the user. 

The Ministry wanted to know from WhatsApp technical architecture and server hosting data of Indian users.

“The collection and onward sharing with Facebook companies, of sensitive personal data of individuals portends an ecosystem where any meaningful distinction between companies and WhatsApp will cease to exist,” it said and added: “This approach has the potential to infringe on core values of data privacy, user choice and autonomy of Indian users.”

“WhatsApp treating Indians differently”

The Indian government also suggested that Indian users are being subjected to differential treatment when compared to their European counterparts where the changes do not apply.

“By not providing Indian users with the ability to opt-out of this data sharing with other Facebook companies, WhatsApp is treating users with an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach,” the government said.

WhatsApp had a few days back announced that it was holding back the introduction of the new privacy policy till May 15 after user backlash over sharing of data and information with its parent company Facebook.

WhatsApp had earlier asked its users to accept an update of its privacy policy if they wanted to keep using the popular messaging app.

In the updated policy, it got a right to share data it collected from WhatsApp users with the broader Facebook network, which includes Instagram, regardless of owning any accounts or profiles there.

The policy tweak triggered a furore and many users started moving to rival platforms like Telegram and Signal.

WhatsApp also clarified that all private messages between friends and family members remain end-to-end encrypted.

January 19, 2021
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