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Govt again warns WhatsApp to scrap the 2021 privacy policy

“We have a sovereign responsibility to protect the rights and interests of Indian citizens. The government will consider various options available under the law,” a senior IT ministry official said.

Written by Aashish Aryan | New Delhi |
Updated: May 20, 2021 6:56:33 pm
whatsapp, whatsapp tricks, whatsapp tips, whatsapp read messages, how to read whatsapp messages without opening the chat, whatsapp update, whatsapp featuresWhatsApp tricks: How to read messages without opening the chat (Photo credit: Ankita Garg/ Express Image)

Instant messaging platform WhatsApp may face legal action in India by May 25 if it does not send a satisfactory reply to a new notice sent by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asking the company to withdraw its latest privacy policy update, ministry officials said.

“We have a sovereign responsibility to protect the rights and interests of Indian citizens. The government will consider various options available under the law,” a senior IT ministry official said.

In a communication sent late on Tuesday to WhatsApp asking it to withdraw the new privacy policy, the IT ministry said, “The changes to the privacy policy and the manner of introducing these changes including in FAQ (frequently asked questions) undermines the sacrosanct values of informational privacy, data security and user choice for Indian users and harms the rights and interests of Indian citizens.” The Indian Express has seen a copy of the new notice.

Officials said that mere deferral by WhatsApp of the last date to accept the updated terms beyond its deadline of May 15 did not absolve it from respecting informational privacy, data security and user choice for Indian users.

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In a statement, WhatsApp said it continued to engage with the Indian government and its update did not impact the privacy of personal messages for anyone. “No accounts were deleted on May 15 because of this update and no one in India lost functionality of WhatsApp either. We will follow up with reminders to people over the next several weeks,” a spokesperson said.

This is the second communication by the IT ministry to WhatsApp asking to withdraw its controversial privacy policy. In January, the ministry had written a letter to Will Cathcart, the global Chief Executive Officer of the instant messaging platform, asking that the latest privacy and policy update be withdrawn.

The privacy update, the IT ministry letter had then said, enabled WhatsApp and other Facebook companies “to make invasive and precise inferences about users”.

“This approach has the potential to infringe on core values of data privacy, user choice and autonomy of Indian users. Given the huge user base of WhatsApp and Facebook in India, the consolidation of this sensitive information also exposes a very large segment of Indian citizens to greater information security risk and vulnerabilities creating a potential honeypot of information,” the IT ministry had said in the letter to Cathcart.


Discriminatory, says govt

The new notice by the government is the second such to WhatsApp. The ministry has again underlined that the company's accept-the-terms-or-leave-the-platform stance for Indian users did not apply to its European consumers.

In the new notice sent on Tuesday, the IT ministry reiterated the “discriminatory” treatment meted out to Indian WhatsApp users compared to those 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-à-vis users in Europe,” the new notice reads.

In its January letter, the ministry had said that WhatsApp’s accept-the-terms-or-leave-the-platform stance for users in India, when the same did not apply to its European users, “betrayed a lack of respect for the rights and interests” of Indian users.

In March, the IT ministry had taken a similar stand before the Delhi High Court, where through an affidavit it had said WhatsApp must be barred from rolling out its new privacy policy as it violated several existing IT rules.

During a hearing on the issue on Monday, WhatsApp informed the High Court that it intended to go ahead with the roll-out of the new privacy policy as planned and the deadline stood as May 15. The platform also said it would continue reminding users who had not yet accepted the terms to do so, and would eventually limit their usage of the platform by making certain services and features unavailable to them if they did not.

The updated policy terms were first announced by WhatsApp via an in-app notification, asking users to agree to those by February 8 or lose access to their accounts. Following protests by both users and privacy activists, WhatsApp had on January 15 announced that it was delaying the implementation of the changes to May 15.

WhatsApp has reiterated that its messaging app is end-to-end encrypted and that it doesn’t have access to private chats or location, nor does it share private messages or other data with Facebook. However, the new update will enable WhatsApp to use some of the “business conversations” hosted with the social network for advertising.

With over 400 million users, India is one of the biggest markets for WhatsApp. As of July 2020, the company had more than 50 million WhatsApp Business users globally, of which over 15 million used the service in India every month.

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