Advantages of WhatsApp
In the submission, WhatsApp suggested that users who did not agree to its terms and conditions could discontinue use of its service. Apps such as Signal and Telegram provide alternate reliable communication services. While this is a reasonable option for urban users of messaging apps, researchers working with rural and disenfranchised sections have pointed out the reliance on WhatsApp’s services due to the design of the app. WhatsApp has an inherent advantage with its messaging and audio-video calling even in low-bandwidth Internet areas. This has to be seen in conjunction with WhatsApp Pay which allows users to transfer money to others. Thus, a mass migration to more privacy-respecting services appears near-impossible due to vendor lock-in. The observation of the Competition Commission of India that WhatsApp is misusing its dominant status appears relevant here.
We would have to understand that a WhatsApp exception, as suggested by Mr. Sibal, would only open the floodgates to further privacy violations by both the state and private entities dealing with user data. There is the issue of potential violation of privacy of children through Ed-Tech apps due to the lack of both a comprehensive ethics policy and a data privacy law akin to the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In the context of services provided by the above-mentioned companies, the Personal Data Protection Bill of 2019 does not even attempt to provide a fig leaf of protection to users of services.
To ensure that the privacy of the Indian citizen is protected in the digital sphere, the data protection Bill needs to be reformulated to ensure that it focuses on user rights with an emphasis on user privacy. A privacy commission would have to be established to enforce these rights. The government would also have to respect the privacy of the citizens while strengthening the right to information. There is an overarching need for a strong data protection Bill.
Vikram Vincent holds a PhD from IIT Bombay