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Govt vs WhatsApp on privacy policy: what now

Communication between the IT Ministry and WhatsApp on the issue of the updated privacy policy has been going on since January this year. Going forward, what are the options for WhatsApp in India?

Communication between the IT Ministry and WhatsApp on the issue of the updated privacy policy has been going on since January this year.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on Tuesday warned WhatsApp once again to roll back its latest update in privacy policy. This time, the Ministry has also warned of legal action if it does not get a satisfactory reply by May 25.

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What does the latest notice mean for WhatsApp?

The new notice from the Ministry, tech and legal experts feel, may be challenged before a court of law.

This marks the first time that the Ministry has warned WhatsApp of legal action; it has said it would pursue all legal options available to it “to protect the sovereign rights” of Indian citizens. The Ministry has reiterated that the changes to WhatsApp’s privacy policy and the manner of introducing them undermine the sacrosanct values of informational privacy, data security and user choice for Indian users.

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How long has this exchange been going on?

Communication between the IT Ministry and WhatsApp on the issue of the updated privacy policy has been going on since January this year. The Ministry had sent its first letter on the issue to Will Cathcart, the global Chief Executive Officer of WhatsApp, even as Parliament was deliberating on the personal data protection Bill. In the letter to Cathcart, the Ministry had said the updated privacy policy and the subsequent changes enabled WhatsApp and other Facebook companies “to make invasive and precise inferences about users”.

The Ministry had then sent a set of 14 questions to WhatsApp on the various ways in which it collected data, the permissions and consents it obtained from domestic users, and whether they were different from what it collected from users in other parts of the world. The Ministry had also sought to know whether the company conducted any profiling and what was the nature of such profiling.

Going forward, what are the option for WhatsApp in India?

With two government warnings and at least two court cases at its door, WhatsApp is likely to find it difficult to push through the latest privacy policy update, according to privacy activists and legal experts.

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While it has time until May 25, WhatsApp will have to explain to the government why it wants to push the update before India comes out with its law on personal data protection.

Although WhatsApp has so far maintained that the app is end-to-end encrypted and it does not share any private data with Facebook, it has said the latest update will enable it to use some of the “business conversations” hosted with Facebook for advertising.

This explanation, however, is unlikely to cut ice with the IT Ministry, experts believe, since the government has clearly said that the new privacy policy update is “invasive” in nature.

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Although WhatsApp has said it would not delay the implementation of the privacy policy beyond May 15, it is likely that it will cut back on sending reminders and notices to users and on threats of de-platforming them eventually if they do not accept the new terms.

First published on: 22-05-2021 at 01:12:40 am
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