WhatsApp scrambles as users in big Indian market fret over privacy

Published January 14, 2021
A WhatsApp advertisement is seen on the front pages of newspapers at a stall in Mumbai, India, Jan 13, 2021. — Reuters
A WhatsApp advertisement is seen on the front pages of newspapers at a stall in Mumbai, India, Jan 13, 2021. — Reuters

WhatsApp is battling mistrust globally after it updated its privacy policy to let it share some user data with parent Facebook and other group firms, and the backlash risks thwarting its ambitions in its biggest market, India.

Though WhatsApp has yet to see mass uninstalls of its app in India, users concerned about privacy are increasingly downloading rival apps such as Signal and Telegram, research firms say, propelling them higher on the download charts and putting those apps ahead of their ubiquitous rival in India for the first time.

The reaction in India — where 400 million users exchange more messages on WhatsApp than anywhere in the world — has forced the messaging app to unleash an advertising blitz costing tens of millions of rupees this week in at least 10 English and Hindi newspapers.

“Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA,” WhatsApp said in one newspaper announcement.

It said its privacy policy update “does not affect the privacy of your messages with your friends and family in any way”. WhatsApp has also said that the changes to the privacy policy are only related to users’ interactions with businesses.

When asked for comment, WhatsApp referred Reuters to its published statements on privacy.

The media campaign — similar to one it ran two years ago when it was facing criticism in India for not doing enough to curb disinformation — underscores the severity of the crisis for the world’s most popular messaging platform.

Parent Facebook and WhatsApp have bet big on India and any user grumbling could dent their plans.

Last year, Facebook invested $5.7 billion in the digital unit of Indian oil-to-tech group Reliance — the social media giant’s biggest deal since its $22 billion buyout of WhatsApp in 2014.

A huge part of the India investment hinges on a WhatsApp and Reliance project to allow about 30 million mom-and-pop store owners to transact digitally.

While WhatsApp’s payment service, approved by India’s flagship payments processor late last year after two years of waiting, does not fall under the privacy policy update, any sizeable user shift to other messengers could mean losing out to well-entrenched rivals.

Concerns abound

Users around the world were alarmed when WhatsApp said on Jan 4 it reserved the right to share some user data including location and phone number, with Facebook and its units such as Instagram and Messenger.

Even as WhatsApp sought to calm fears and assure users that neither it nor Facebook would have access to their messages, calls, or call logs, the privacy policy update triggered a storm globally with Signal downloads swelling as people looked for alternative messengers.

Signal was the most downloaded free app in India on both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android outpacing WhatsApp, according to internet research firm Top10VPN.

Downloads of Signal in India jumped to 7,100,000 between Jan 5 and Jan 12, from about 15,000 days earlier, according to analytics firm Sensor Tower. Telegram downloads surged 40 per cent while WhatsApp downloads fell 30pc in the period.

Manish Khatri, a Mumbai based smartphone seller, said many of his customers were asking if WhatsApp could read their messages.

Indian startups have also been quick to react.

“Here in India WhatsApp/Facebook are abusing their monopoly and taking away millions of users’ privacy for granted,” Vijay Shekhar Sharma, chief executive of Alibaba-backed fintech Paytm, said on Twitter.

“We should move on to @signalapp NOW. It is up to us to become victim or reject such moves.”

MobiKwik, another digital payments firm, had begun using WhatsApp for business communication but has decided to shift to Google and Signal, its boss said.

“I’m making myself unavailable on WhatsApp and I’ve advised senior executives to do the same,” MobiKwik CEO Bipin Preet Singh told Reuters.

WhatsApp’s payments system in India competes with the likes of Paytm and MobiKwik as well as Google Pay and Walmart’s PhonePe.

Opinion

Zero carbon race
22 Jan 2021

Zero carbon race

Over 100 countries, including Pakistan, have failed to submit their national commitments to cut emissions.
Sports for all
22 Jan 2021

Sports for all

We need a certain level of fitness to observe God’s law.
Normalcy restored
Updated 22 Jan 2021

Normalcy restored

So long as invoking domestic and foreign ‘enemies’ is our ‘normal’, expect our tryst with praetorianism to continue unabated.
The hazards of governance
Updated 21 Jan 2021

The hazards of governance

The most efficient administrations derive their strength from the quality and regularity of intra-department consultation.

Editorial

Updated 22 Jan 2021

Time to heal

A multitude of foreign issues will test Biden’s mettle and require progressive thinking.
22 Jan 2021

Foreign funding

AS the pressure builds on his party in the foreign funding case, Prime Minister Imran Khan has called for an ...
22 Jan 2021

Decaying PTV

THE Cabinet Committee on State-Owned Enterprises has decided to remove Pakistan Television from the list of...
Updated 21 Jan 2021

Agosta kickbacks trial

A POLITICALLY significant trial opened in Paris yesterday. Former French prime minister Edouard Balladur is in the...
Updated 21 Jan 2021

Indian media scandal

Common sense, factual reporting and ethics are all chucked out the window in the maddening race for ratings, influence and power.
21 Jan 2021

Rising food prices

FOOD inflation continues to challenge the resolve of the government to control the prices of essential kitchen items...