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‘Different policy for Indian and European users serious concern’: GoI directs WhatsApp to withdraw proposed privacy policy changes

The Government also emphasized its sovereignty and said that "any unilateral changes to the WhatsApp Terms of Service and Privacy would not be fair and acceptable."

The Government of India has written to Will Cathcart, the CEO of WhatsApp, regarding privacy concerns in the aftermath of sweeping policy changes proposed by the messenger app. The Government has expressed its concerns regarding the implications it could have for users in India.

The letter states, “The changes to the WhatsApp Privacy Policy and Terms of Service outline the vast amounts and categories of data that is collected by WhatsApp and how it will be shared with other Facebook companies. These changes enable WhatsApp, and other Facebook Companies, to make invasive and precise inferences about users which may not be reasonably foreseen or expected by users in the ordinary course of accessing these services.”

“These changes notify users that WhatsApp will collect highly invasive and granular metadata, such as time, frequency and duration of interactions, group names, payments and transaction data, online status, location indicators, as well as any messages shared by users with business accounts. Further, these changes indicate that this information will be shared with other Facebook Companies for an extremely expansive and broad set of purposes, without providing users with any option to opt-out of this integration across social media platforms,” it adds.

The Government noted that such a policy would entail the dissolution of “any meaningful distinction” between Facebook Companies and WhatsApp. The Government also emphasized its sovereignty and said that “any unilateral changes to the WhatsApp Terms of Service and Privacy would not be fair and acceptable.”

Consequently, the Government of India urged the platform to “withdraw the proposed changes.” “Further, you are urged to reconsider your approach to respect the informational privacy, freedom of choice and data security Of Indian citizens,” the letter stated. It also pointed out that the difference between the WhatsApp privacy policy for Indian users and Europe’s.

While the latter’s data is protected from being used by Facebook Companies, the former is not awarded the same protection. The letter said, “This differential and discriminatory treatment of Indian and European users is attracting serious criticism and betrays a lack of respect for the rights and interests of Indian citizens, who form a substantial portion of WhatsApp’s user base. Such a differential treatment is prejudicial to the interests of the Indian users and is viewed with serious concern by the Government.”

The Government of India also noted that the company was being unfair to Indian users. It said, “The Government of India is also concerned with the way in which Indian users have been made subject to these changes. 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.”

“This approach leverages the social significance of WhatsApp to force users into a bargain which may infringe on their interests in relation to informational privacy and information security. This ‘all or-nothing’ approach takes away any meaningful choice from Indian users,” it added.

The Government of India has also asked WhatsApp a series of pertinent questions. Some of them are:

  • Please provide details of the services provided by the WhatsApp application in India.
  • Please disclose the exact categories of data that the WhatsApp application collects from Indian users.
  • Does WhatsApp conduct profiling of Indian users on basis of their of your application? What nature of profiling is conducted?
  • Is there any difference between the privacy policy of the WhatsApp application in India and in Other countries?

The Government of India has also sought information regarding the messenger app’s data security, information security, cyber security, privacy and encryption policies with regards to Indian users. GoI also seeks to know whether WhatsApp has provided access to its user data to a third party. WhatsApp has been directed to respond within a week.

WhatsApp had said that as part of its new privacy policy it would share user data with other Facebook companies. This led its users to believe that WhatsApp would now be able to peek into personal messages of its users and it would share the personal data of users with Facebook. Facebook-owned Whatsapp had given February 8th as the date after which the app would stop working on devices and accounts would be suspended if the new policy was not accepted. As a result, many people started moving to other apps like Signal and Telegram looking for a substitute.

However, after facing flak from its users, WhatsApp had decided to delay its policy update saying users will be provided more time to to ‘understand the policy update’.

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