WhatsApp has been asked to withdraw proposed changes to its privacy and data-sharing policies – changes the India government today decried as “discriminatory” and that have prompted outrage among large sections of the app’s 400 million users in the country. In a letter to the global CEO of Facebook (which owns WhatsApp) the government said it objected to an “invasive” proposal to share user metadata with businesses on its platforms. The proposed changes were postponed last week as WhatsApp sought to reassure users and authorities. WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media platforms, including Twitter, have also been part of consultations with the government over a data protection bill that is currently being reviewed by a parliamentary panel.
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On Tuesday morning government sources revealed details of the letter to Facebook; the letter detailed its concerns over privacy of user data in the social media giant’s largest market. “The new policy of WhatsApp proposes to share metadata of users’ chat with business accounts… create a honeypot of information about users… can create security risks,” the letter from the Electronics and Information Technology Ministry said.
The letter also objected to “differential privacy policies for the European Union and India” after it emerged that Indian users would have to accept the new terms of service in order to continue using WhatsApp. EU users do not face such a dilemma after a prior agreement with regional authorities. The ministry objected to WhatsApp’s “all-or-nothing” approach, pointing out that India was its largest user base and was being shown a “lack of respect”.
“This approach has the potential to infringe on core values of data privacy, user choice and autonomy of Indian users,” it said, stressing that the proposed changes “enable WhatsApp, and other Facebook companies, to make invasive and precise inferences about users…”. These inferences, the letter said, may not have been “reasonably foreseen or expected… in the ordinary course of assessing these services”.
The letter posed 14 questions to Facebook and WhatsApp, including the exact categories of data collected; details of data security and privacy and encryption policies; details of data collected, if any, and shared with other apps or associated companies; and if WhatsApp logged information about other apps running on a user’s mobile device.
On Saturday WhatsApp said it was delaying the proposed changes till “after May” and would work to “counter any confusion by communicating directly” with its users. “No one will have their account deleted… will make sure users have plenty of time to review and understand the terms”, the company tweeted.
WhatsApp, which has faced a tidal wave of protests since announcing the policy changes earlier this month, has made multiple attempts to reach out to its users and explain its position. Most prominently, last week the company took out full-page newspaper advertisements with the message: “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA” and “WhatsApp respects and protects your privacy”.
Screenshots of the ad blitz were soon widely shared on social media, where users commented on the irony of WhatsApp resorting to newspaper ads. “WhatsApp a digital platform needs to clarify over its privacy rules through print medium!” one post read. These ads were the third effort to clarify its revamped privacy and data-sharing policy.
Meanwhile, this week the Delhi High Court heard a petition on WhatsApp’s proposed policy changes, but seemed to favour the platform. “It is a private app. Don’t join it. It is a voluntary thing, don’t accept it. Use some other app,” Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva said, pointing out that if users cared to read the terms and conditions of most commonly used mobile apps they’d be “surprised as to what all you are consenting to”.
As users’ concerns grew, the unthinkable began happening – WhatsApp, which for so long had a stranglehold on the cross-messaging and Voice over IP space – began bleeding users. Telegram and Signal, both of which offer the same encrypted messaging service but say user data is absolutely protected, saw a surge in downloads and new users. Signal, co-founded by Brian Acton (who also co-founded WhatsApp), was given a particular boost after Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s “Use Signal” tweet.
In October senior Facebook and Twitter officials were asked to appear before a joint parliamentary committee regarding data protection and privacy issues. The committee, which is looking into the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, following concerns expressed by the Congress, has called all stakeholders to get an overview.
With input from AFP, PTI, Reuters