WhatsApp privacy policy case: Here’s what it says, and why it mattershttps://indianexpress.com/article/technology/tech-news-technology/whatsapp-facebook-privacy-case-supreme-court-everything-you-need-to-know-4631853/

WhatsApp privacy policy case: Here’s what it says, and why it matters

WhatsApp privacy case: The government is exploring a data regulatory regime for internet services in India

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WhatsApp privacy case: The government is exploring a data regulatory regime for internet services in India. (Source: AP)

Will India finally get a law around data protection of its consumers? Currently there’s a petition up for debate in the Supreme Court, which is examining this, and it looks like the government is exploring the idea of some regulations for data protection. The case, filed by petitioners Karmanya Singh Sareen and Shreya Sethi, is currently being heard by a five-judge bench in the Supreme Court.

So what’s the latest around this WhatsApp privacy case, as it has come to be known?  Here’s a look at the latest events around this data privacy case.

What’s the latest in this case?

The government has indicated that it will be exploring some sort of regulations to protect the data privacy of consumers in India. A PTI report quoted Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Tushar Mehta as saying, “We are coming out with a regulatory regime on data protection. Freedom of choice needs to be protected and there cannot be any doubt over it.”

In an earlier hearing, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had told the court it will be exploring some regulations for OTT (over the top) players and services such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype.

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The case itself was first filed by Karmanya Singh Sareen and Shreya Sethi last year, after WhatsApp had changed its privacy policy and announced it will be sharing data with Facebook. The petitioners had argued that this was violation of user privacy, and filed a petition in the Delhi High Court.

In September, the Delhi High Court had ruled that WhatsApp had to delete user account information of all users who had opted to delete their account, and that it couldn’t share information with Facebook up to September 25, 2016, which was the date of the order. However, the current petition in the Supreme Court is challenging this order.

What do the petitioners want?

The petition is looking at the issue of online privacy and asks for the state to step in. India currently has no specific law dealing with user data privacy.

The petition states, “It is also the responsibility of the State to guarantee and ensure the protection of the personal and private data and information of these millions of citizens, when they use such modes of communications to engage in conversations and exchange private and confidential data and information.

The petition also points out that in India with the internet gaining so many users, more and more people are coming online and using these applications.

The original petition reads, “However, since such services are still relatively new, there is no statutory or regulatory framework / mechanism in place in order to ensure that these services comply with the scheme of regulations envisaged for other such telecommunication services – including the protective features thereof.” 

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The current petition is looking at the issue online privacy and whether the state needs to pitch in for the same. (Source: AP)

So where does WhatsApp fit in this?

The case is filed in the background of the WhatsApp privacy policy change, and points out how the app will be collecting information of users, which will include phone numbers, names, user connections, usage and log data, transactions, status, device and connection information, and sharing this with Facebook, which is the parent company.

According to a PTI report, senior advocate Harish Salve, who is appearing for the petitioners argued in court that someone could snoop into the messages shared by users. However, WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, and technically no third-party can read the messages.

But as the report notes, Salve also questioned encryption method and argued, “Privacy has multiple dimensions. Here, I am saying that I am entrusting something to you. Confidentiality has to be protected.”  The petitioner’s lawyer  has also argued the policy change by WhatsApp “is unconscionable and is unacceptable and also suffers from constitutional vulnerability.”

What’s Facebook and WhatsApp’s response?

WhatsApp, which is end-to-end encrypted by default, says no one can read messages being shared by users. Interestingly, according to an Economic Times report, Facebook lawyer KK Venugopal also told the court, “Those who find the new privacy policy irksome or violative of their fundamental rights, can quit,” adding that users have full freedom to give up WhatsApp and Facebook.

However, Kapil Sibal, who is also on council for WhatsApp has pointed out the data sharing does not include messages, so privacy is not compromised. WhatsApp’s lawyers argue the privacy policy change is in compliance with the IT Act.

So what happens next?

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The case will be heard next during the summer vacation on May 15. So far it is not clear, when the government will reveal this framework for protecting online data of consumers.