India asks WhatsApp to withdraw changes in privacy policy

They raise ‘grave concerns’ over implications of the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens, it says

January 19, 2021 02:20 pm | Updated 08:36 pm IST - New Delhi

File photo for representation.

File photo for representation.

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The Government of India has asked WhatsApp to withdraw the proposed changes in its privacy policy , stating that the proposed changes raised “grave concerns” over the implications of the choice and the autonomy of Indian citizens.

In a letter to WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart, the government pointed out that the Indian users, who have not been given the option to opt out of data-sharing with Facebook companies, were being subjected to differential treatment when compared to their European counterparts.

“Whether this [the new policy] will enable better provision of service to users or not is besides the point; the issue is the impact it has on informational privacy, data security and user choice,” the letter said, adding that sovereign independence of India’s distinct identity and its people must be properly respected and any unilateral changes to WhatsApp Terms of Service and Privacy would not be fair and acceptable.

The government asked WhatsApp to reconsider its approach to respect the informational privacy, freedom of choice and data security of Indian citizens.

Different for European users

“The privacy policy offered by WhatsApp to its European users specifically prohibits the use of any information shared with a Facebook company for that companies’ own purposes, while this Clause is not present in the privacy policy offered to Indian users. This differential and discriminatory treatment of Indian and European users is attracting serious criticism and betrays a lack of respect for the rights and interest of Indian citizens, who form a substantial portion of WhatsApp’s user base,” it said.

The government also asked it to respond to about 14 detailed questions with regard to changes made in the privacy policy within seven days. These include questions such as exact categories of data that WhatsApp collects from Indian users, details of permissions sought and their utility, if it does profiling of Indian users on the basis of app usage, difference between privacy policy of the application in India and in other countries, if WhatsApp shares data with other apps, whether WhatsApp captures info about other applications running on the mobile phone device of the user and on which server is the data of Indian users transmitted and hosted.

Speaking at an event earlier in the day on Tuesday, Electronics and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said, “Be it WhatsApp or any other digital platform, you are free to do business in India but do it in a manner without infringing upon the rights of Indians who operate, and sanctity of personal communication needs to be maintained”.

India largest user

The government pointed out that India formed the largest segment of WhatsApp’s user base globally and any change in policies would have a disproportionate impact on its citizens.

In the letter, the government noted that changes in the policy would enable WhatsApp, and other Facebook companies to make “invasive and precise inferences” about users that may not be reasonably foreseen or expected by users in the ordinary course of assessing the services.

“Given the huge user base of WhatsApp and Facebook in India, the consolidation of the sensitive information also exposes a very large segment of Indian citizens to greater information security risks and vulnerabilities creating a potential honeypot of information,” it said.

The government expressed concern over the way in which Indian users have been made subject to these changes. “By not providing Indian users with the ability to opt-out of this data sharing with other Facebook companies, WhatsApp is treating users with an ‘all-or-nothing’ approach…[this] takes away any meaningful choice from Indian users,” it added.

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