India asks Facebook's WhatsApp to withdraw privacy policy update

Published January 19, 2021
A Whatsapp App logo is seen behind a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone that is logged on to Facebook in the central Bosnian town of Zenica on February 20, 2014. — Reuters/File
A Whatsapp App logo is seen behind a Samsung Galaxy S4 phone that is logged on to Facebook in the central Bosnian town of Zenica on February 20, 2014. — Reuters/File

India’s technology ministry has asked Facebook Inc-owned WhatsApp to withdraw the changes to its privacy policy announced by the messenger earlier this month, saying the new terms take away choice from Indian users.

“The proposed changes raise grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens,” said the tech ministry’s email addressed to WhatsApp boss Will Cathcart dated January 18, which was reviewed by Reuters.

“Therefore, you are called upon to withdraw the proposed changes.”

WhatsApp did not immediately respond to a request for comment but has previously said that its new privacy policy update does not affect the privacy of users’ messages with friends, family and in groups.

The company last week said it would delay the new policy launch to May from February, after facing a raft of criticism over the new terms including in its biggest market of 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.

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.

New privacy terms

WhatsApp's new privacy terms, which were unveiled earlier this month, reserve the right to share user data, including location and phone number, with its parent Facebook Inc and units such as Instagram and Messenger.

Privacy advocates have questioned the move citing Facebook's track record in handling user data, with many suggesting users to migrate to platforms such as Telegram and Signal.

Following a backlash, the messaging app in a statement sought to address "some of the rumours going around", saying the new privacy policy will not affect the security of everyday conversations.

"We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way," the company said. "Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data."

WhatsApp said despite the update, neither it nor Facebook could read users' messages or hear their calls with friends, family or co-workers. "Whatever you share, it stays between you," it said, reiterating that users' personal messages were protected by end-to-end encryption.

The Facebook Inc-owned app said it also did not keep logs of who users were messaging or calling and neither it nor Facebook could see the location of a user shared by them with someone on WhatsApp.

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