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Why India’s Industry And Privacy Experts Are Worried About WhatsApp’s New Privacy Policy?

Why India’s Industry And Privacy Experts Are Worried About WhatsApp’s New Privacy Policy?

India’s largest messaging app by user base, WhatsApp has updated its terms and privacy policy, asking users consent to share their data with Facebook

The new policy targets business interactions, transactions and other business-related features, which will allow WhatsApp and Facebook to support third-party service providers

Users who do not accept the new privacy policy of WhatsApp will lose their account on February 8, 2021

Social media giant Facebook’s messaging arm WhatsApp has courted controversy once again. India’s largest messaging app by user base, WhatsApp has updated its terms and privacy policy, asking users consent to share their data with Facebook. 

Under the new terms and conditions, WhatsApp would share transaction data, mobile device information, IP addresses, and other data on how users interact with businesses on WhatsApp and with Facebook group companies, including Instagram. But that’s not the real problem. Every internet company uses consumer data to make its product better. In the case of WhatsApp it’s their way or highway. According to the company’s diktat, if users fail to accept the new privacy policy by February 8, 2021, they will lose their WhatsApp account. 

Experts see this as an abuse of WhatsApp and Facebook’s dominant position in the market. Many of them took to social media platforms to register their concern about the update.

“Every such update gives me shivers. A company so callous in its data history and mis-selling record has all of our personal data and intent from WhatsApp. A privacy nightmare hegemony,” wrote Sairee Chahal, founder and CEO of SHEROES – a community platform for women.

The new policy primarily targets business interactions, transactions and other business-related features, which are said to allow WhatsApp and Facebook to support third-party service providers in a better way and provide advanced features such as analytics among others. 

Among the key updates being brought in, is a change in the way the platform would process the user data. Under the new policy, the way businesses use the services hosted by Facebook to store as well as manage their chats on WhatsApp would  change. There would also be a shift in the way WhatsApp partners with its owner Facebook to allow integration across Facebook’s products and platforms. 

“ Our Privacy Policy and Terms Of Service update now includes offering Facebook as yet another option among the various Business Service Providers. When businesses choose to function through WhatsApp’s Business Apps, they choose to route their various requirements to serve their customers through Business Service Providers,” said a WhatsApp spokesperson in response to queries about WhatsApp data that is shared with Facebook. 

The spokesperson further added that with regards to business messaging, no one mandates users to share data. Every user will be notified within the chat if the business they are talking to has chosen to use Facebook (now) to manage and store their WhatsApp messages. As has always been the case, users are in control of who they chat with and can still easily block a business on WhatsApp if they want, informed the WhatsApp spokesperson.

“As with any other Business Service Provider, it’s important to keep in mind that hiring a third-party company to host and store the messages is an industry standard practice. Hence, if a business chooses to use Facebook’s secure hosting infrastructure, then Facebook will use the messages it processes on behalf of and at the instructions of the business,” said the spokesperson.

The industry experts and users are unhappy, though. Deepak Abbot, cofounder of digital gold loans provider Indiagold and former Paytm growth chief, told Inc42 that WhatsApp could have offered users an option to opt out of certain services if they refused to share data rather than making it a compulsion, given WhatsApp’s market share. The messaging app has around 400 Mn users in India and with it’s entry into the UPI space, the critical nature of user data on WhatsApp only increases. 

“Facebook is a platform where users communicate with a larger audience and users know that they will be exposed to public information. Whereas, in the case of WhatsApp, the communication is largely one to one. If users see their advertisements on Facebook that relate to their financial transactions on WhatsApp, it will feel like a breach of privacy and it certainly seems problematic on an ethical front,” added Abbot.

In terms of changes, WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy and terms of service provide additional information on how the app collects and handles user data. There are new sections including Transactions and Payments Data as well as Location Information to provide details on precise data collection by the app. WhatsApp has also included specific information on business interactions taking place through its messaging app.

“The information we share with other Facebook Companies includes your  account registration information (such as your phone number), transaction data, service-related information, information on how you interact with others (including businesses) when using our Services, mobile device information, your IP address, and may include other information identified in the Privacy Policy section entitled ‘Information We Collect’ or obtained upon notice to you or based on your consent,” WhatsApp noted in an FAQ section detailing the information it shares with Facebook’s companies.

The Antitrust Angle 

Salman Waris, managing partner at technology firm Techlegis called this a serious issue which could constitute a violation of competition law as it could lead to an abuse of Whatsapp’s ‘dominant position’ in the market. 

“Since Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp, one had the option to opt out of sharing activity data on WhatsApp from Facebook. Now that option is no longer going to be available. Already you would have seen that you can not view certain WhatsApp messages from some individuals who have the latest version of WhatsApp and from February it’s going to be obligatory for all users to download the same or update the app to continue using it, obligating forced consent,” said Waris. 

Prior to the latest update, existing users were provided with the option to choose not to have their WhatsApp account information shared with Facebook. This, however, seems to be not the case this time.

In 2018, Whatsapp had clarified its data policy in India, after concerns were raised about the messaging app sharing customer data related to payments with Facebook. “Facebook does not use WhatsApp payment information for commercial purposes, it simply helps pass the necessary payment information to the bank partner and NPCI. In some cases, we may share limited data to help provide customer support to you or keep payments safe and secure,” WhatsApp had said in a clarification posted on its platform in April 2018. 

NS Nappinai, Supreme Court advocate and founder of CyberSaathi, an initiative that assists victims of cyber crimes says that linking of large data sets across multiple platforms certainly puts users’ data and privacy rights in jeopardy. It is not just about content or profiling but a heightened form of profiling that is not permissible by a corporate entity. There is enough guidance on what is permissible and what is not from both the privacy judgment and the Aadhaar judgment of the SC. 

“Giving a ‘take it or leave it’ choice to users that violates their privacy and puts them to risk can be contested as unconscionable. Users are well within their rights to seek redress either before the SC or HC to protect their privacy rights. If the triumvirate of corporate entities abuse their dominant position, entities may also seek recourse before the Competition Commission of India,” says Nappinai.

Deepsekhar Choudhury contributed to this story.