IT Ministry directs WhatsApp to withdraw new privacy policy

·5-min read

New Delhi, May 19 (PTI) The government has ordered WhatsApp to withdraw its controversial new privacy policy, saying the changes undermine the sacrosanct values of privacy, data security and harms rights and interests of Indian citizens.

The Ministry of Electronics and IT shot off a letter to WhatsApp on May 18 on the issue, sources said and warned that necessary steps in accordance with law will be taken if a satisfactory response was not received within seven days.

The ministry has taken a strong position on the matter, and made it clear that it is not just problematic but also 'irresponsible' for the messaging platform to leverage its position to impose 'unfair' terms and conditions on Indian users, when many depend on WhatsApp to communicate in everyday life, according to the sources.

When contacted, a WhatsApp spokesperson said the company continues to engage with the government.

'... we reaffirm what we said before that this update does not impact the privacy of personal messages for anyone... we'll take every opportunity to explain how we protect people's personal messages and private information,' the spokesperson added.

In its letter dated May 18, the ministry has drawn attention of WhatsApp as to how its new privacy policy is a violation of several provisions of the existing Indian laws and rules.

In fulfilment of its sovereign responsibility to protect the rights and interests of Indian citizens, the government will consider various options available to it under laws in India, the sources at the ministry said.

A raging debate had ensued after WhatsApp had said it will update its terms of service and privacy policy around how it processes user data and partners with Facebook to offer integrations across the social media giant's products.

WhatsApp -- which has 53 crore users in India as per government data -- had faced severe backlash over user concerns that data was being shared with parent company Facebook.

Earlier this week, WhatsApp told the Delhi High Court that while its new privacy policy has come into effect from May 15, it would not start deleting accounts of those users who have not accepted it and would try to encourage them to get on board.

The platform had said there was no universal or uniform time limit after which it will start to delete accounts as each user would be dealt with on a case-to-case basis.

The sources said the IT ministry believes that the changes to WhatsApp privacy policy and the manner of introducing the said changes undermines the sacrosanct values of informational privacy, data security and user choice while harming the rights and interests of Indian citizens.

In its May 18 communication to WhatsApp, the ministry has once again told the messaging platform to withdraw its privacy policy 2021, and also flagged WhatsApp's discriminatory treatment of Indian users vis-a-vis users in Europe.

'As you are doubtlessly aware, many Indian citizens depend on WhatsApp to communicate in everyday life. It is not just problematic but also irresponsible for WhatsApp to leverage this position to impose unfair terms and conditions on Indian users, particularly those that discriminate against Indian users vis-a-vis users in Europe,' as per the communication.

The sources noted that WhatsApp had earlier claimed that it officially deferred its new privacy policy beyond May 15, 2021. However, the ministry in its communication has asserted that deferral of the privacy policy beyond May 15 does not absolve WhatsApp from respecting the values of informational privacy, data security and user choice for Indian users.

It has highlighted that the changes to the privacy policy and the manner of introducing the changes including by way of FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) undermines the values of privacy, data security and user choice. The ministry has also taken the same stand in the Delhi High Court, where this matter is sub-judice, the sources pointed out.

The WhatsApp spokesperson, in a statement, said the company's goal is to provide information about new options it is building that people will have -- to message a business on WhatsApp -- in the future.

'While the majority of users who have received the new terms of service have accepted them, we appreciate some people haven't had the chance to do so yet. No accounts were deleted on May 15 because of this update and no one in India lost functionality of WhatsApp either,' the spokesperson added.

The spokesperson also said WhatsApp will follow up with reminders to people over the next several weeks.

In January this year, WhatsApp had informed users about the changes in its terms of service and public policy through an in-app notification. Users were initially given time till February 8 to agree to the new terms in order to continue using the platform.

According to WhatsApp, the key updates include more information about its service and how it processes user data; how businesses can use Facebook hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats; and how WhatsApp partners with Facebook to offer integrations across the company products.

WhatsApp also insisted that the acceptance of the privacy policy update does not expand its ability to share user data with Facebook. However, widespread criticism over WhatsApp's alleged sharing of user information with Facebook had forced the messaging platform to postpone the February deadline to May 15.

WhatsApp, in the past, has said it is open to answering any questions from the government on privacy and that it will continue to explain to users that their messages are end-to-end encrypted.

Raj Ramachandran, Partner at J Sagar Associates, said that with the directive for withdrawal of the new privacy policy that came into effect from May 15, the matter seems to be taking an unusual turn.

'It remains to be seen how the directive will be responded to within the prescribed timeline, given the diametrically opposite position being taken by both sides on the revised policy and its compliance with applicable laws. The option apparently given to users in other jurisdictions to opt out of the revised policy will also need to be explained,' Ramachandran said.

A convincing response to implement the revised policy in line with other jurisdictions could augur well to help resolve the matter, he added. PTI SR MBI ANZ RAM

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