India asks WhatsApp to withdraw new privacy policy, answer 14 questions

The ministry has sought details of WhatsApp’s services in India, details of permissions and consent required by different versions of the app | Photo: Bloomberg
India has asked WhatsApp to withdraw its new privacy policy, saying the Facebook-owned messaging platform’s proposed changes “make invasive and precise inferences about users”.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) asked WhatsApp to clarify issues related to its “privacy and data transfer and sharing policies, and general business practices” within seven days.

In an email addressed to WhatsApp’s global head Will Cathcart on Monday, the ministry said the proposed policy changes “will have a disproportionate impact on the Indian citizens”, given that India was WhatsApp’s largest user base with over 400 million of them.

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

WhatsApp had earlier said that its proposed policy update “does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. The changes are related to optional business features on WhatsApp, and provide further transparency about how we collect and use data”.

The messaging company started rolling out the update in December, asking users to accept by February 8 or lose access to the service.

While the firm has clarified that messages and private conversations remain private and encrypted, concerns about privacy violations remain among users, many of whom are moving to other messaging apps like Signal and Telegram. It has also deferred introducing the policy from February 8 to May 15 after facing a backlash.

Calling out the company’s “all-or-nothing” approach, taking away any meaningful choice from Indian users, the ministry outlined several concerns regarding the proposed policy update.

It added that “the proposed changes raise grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens. Therefore, you are called upon 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 email further raised concern about the differential treatment being provided to Indian users against their European counterparts, where WhatsApp’s privacy policy “specifically prohibits the use of any information shared with a Facebook company for companies’ own purposes, while this clause is not present in the privacy policy offered to Indian users”.

In addition to general questions around the specific services provided by WhatsApp in India, its data-sharing practices, and permissions, the ministry has asked whether WhatsApp conducts profiling its Indian users, whether permissions sought in other geographical locations are different from those in India, which server hosts Indian WhatsApp users’ data, and so on.

On Tuesday, Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister of electronics and IT, said at an event that digital platforms were free to do business in India as long as they did not look at Indians’ personal communication.

“Be it WhatsApp, be it Facebook, be it any digital platform, you are free to do business in India, but do it in a manner without infringing upon the rights of Indians who operate them,” Prasad said at the inaugural session of the India Digital Summit (IDS), organised by the Internet and Mobile Association of India.

Speaking to Anant Goenka, executive director, Indian Express, in a video conference, Prasad said the “sanctity of personal communication needs to be maintained”.

When asked if he was still on WhatsApp, Prasad said he wasn’t, and reiterated that conversations like a doctor talking to patients or a lawyer talking to clients were privileged communication, and shouldn’t be available for anyone else to see.

"We wish to reinforce that this update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook. Our aim is to provide transparency and new options available to engage with businesses so they can serve their customers and grow. WhatsApp will always protect personal messages with end-to-end encryption so that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see them. We are working to address misinformation and remain available to answer any questions,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

Dear Reader,

Business Standard has always strived hard to provide up-to-date information and commentary on developments that are of interest to you and have wider political and economic implications for the country and the world. Your encouragement and constant feedback on how to improve our offering have only made our resolve and commitment to these ideals stronger. Even during these difficult times arising out of Covid-19, we continue to remain committed to keeping you informed and updated with credible news, authoritative views and incisive commentary on topical issues of relevance.

We, however, have a request.

As we battle the economic impact of the pandemic, we need your support even more, so that we can continue to offer you more quality content. Our subscription model has seen an encouraging response from many of you, who have subscribed to our online content. More subscription to our online content can only help us achieve the goals of offering you even better and more relevant content. We believe in free, fair and credible journalism. Your support through more subscriptions can help us practise the journalism to which we are committed.

Support quality journalism and subscribe to Business Standard.

Digital Editor

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel