WhatsApp case: For people, privacy matters more than firm's value, says SC

In January, WhatsApp had renewed its terms of service and privacy policy to ‘better integrate’ with other products and services offered by its parent company, which stated users must agree to its new data-sharing norms, including business conversations with Facebook
The Supreme Court on Monday sought responses from the Centre and Facebook-owned WhatsApp within a month on a fresh plea alleging lower standards of privacy for Indian users as compared with European counterparts.

A Bench, headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde, was hearing an interim application filed by petitioners, Karmanya Singh Sareen and Shreya Sethi, in a pending petition of 2017. Their lawyer, Shyam Diwan, said the messaging app was differentiating between European countries and India in its policy.

The apex court said people have grave apprehensions that they will lose their privacy, and it is our duty to protect them. It added people value their privacy more than the value of the company, which might be in trillions. “You (Facebook and WhatsApp) may be two or three trillion (dollar) companies. But people value their privacy. It is our duty and we have to protect people's privacy,” Bobde said.

In January, WhatsApp had renewed its terms of service and privacy policy to ‘better integrate’ with other products and services offered by its parent company, which stated users must agree to its new data-sharing norms, including business conversations with Facebook. While WhatsApp had clarified that messages and private conversations remain private and encrypted, concerns about privacy violations remained among users, many of whom moved to other apps like Signal and Telegram. WhatsApp had also deferred introducing the policy from February 8 to May 15 after facing a backlash. 


WhatsApp told the top court that Europe has a special law on privacy and it will also follow if India has a similar statute. “This 2021 policy is applicable everywhere, apart from Europe as it has a law. If India has a law we will follow the same,” said Senior Counsel Kapil Sibal, representing WhatsApp. The case will be heard next after four weeks. The Bench was informed that a similar matter was already being heard by the Delhi High Court. “We will see if we should get the Delhi High Court case transferred here (Supreme Court) or to send these there. But we will issue notice and (you) file replies. We may have to see if the matter is pending before us in a constitution bench,” the Bench said.

In January, the government had also 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”. 

WhatsApp had said 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”.

Petitioners Sareen and Sethi had earlier moved the court in 2016 against WhatsApp when the messaging app updated its privacy policy for the first time after it was acquired by Facebook in 2014.



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