Press "Enter" to skip to content

WhatsApp Again Postpones Privacy Policy Deadline, but Outrage Remains Strong in India

By Aishwarya Jagani

WhatsApp said last week that it was again delaying the deadline for users to accept a new privacy policy that barred them from opting out of sharing data with parent company Facebook.

The company said in a May 7 statement that users would not lose functionality if they failed to accept the new policy by Saturday. The change, first announced Jan. 4, had required users outside the EU to accept the new policy by Feb. 8.

After a global outcry — and accusations from the Indian government that the policy unfairly singled out more than 450 million users — the deadline was pushed to May 15.

While announcing no definitive deadline, WhatsApp said in a website blog last week that “no one will have their accounts deleted or lose functionality of WhatsApp on May 15 because of this update.

“For the last several weeks,” the post continued, “we’ve displayed a notification in WhatsApp providing more information about the update.

“After giving everyone time to review, we’re continuing to remind those who haven’t had the chance to do so to review and accept,” WhatsApp said. “After a period of several weeks, the reminder people receive will eventually become persistent.”

“WhatsApp again has the same stand for deferring.”

Ketaki Kadlaskar, New Delhi cyberlaw expert.

WhatsApp officials did not return queries seeking comment from Digital Privacy News.

Still, the latest change does not placate privacy advocates in India.

“In this latest move, WhatsApp again has the same stand for deferring, that is to clear the misinformation and give users the time to go through the update,” Ketaki Kadlaskar, a cyberlaw and data-privacy expert in New Delhi, told Digital Privacy News.

She noted the company’s statement about “persistent reminders” to users to accept the policy — saying that “by not giving a choice” on whether to accept the policy update, WhatsApp still violated user privacy.

The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEIT) did not return a request for comment.

Chats Still Encrypted

The new WhatsApp policy would have allowed some users to opt-out of sharing information from business accounts and metadata from private accounts.

But private chats would remain end-to-end encrypted and inaccessible to third parties.

According to the policy: “When you message with a business on WhatsApp, keep in mind that the content you share may be visible to several people in that business.

“A business may give such third-party service provider access to its communications to send, store, read, manage or otherwise process them for the business.”

Still, incensed users worldwide flocked to other services — thousands went to Signal and Telegram within the next week — and Turkey and Singapore called for independent investigations.

Indian officials immediately bristled, arguing that users were begin discriminated against because they could not opt out of data-sharing with Facebook, like European users.

“No one will have their accounts deleted or lose functionality of WhatsApp on May 15 because of this update.”

WhatsApp.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government demanded WhatsApp withdraw its plans. The government then joined a petition filed to the Indian High Court in New Delhi against the policy by privacy advocate Chaitanya Rohilla.

“The proposed changes raise grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens,” MEIT said in a Jan. 18 statement.

“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,” the statement said.

India is one WhatsApp’s largest markets, with more than 450 million users, according to news reports.

Further, India’s Parliament is considering a data-protection bill — and WhatsApp’s move was seen as premature and discriminatory.

Widespread Attacks

Other privacy experts called out WhatsApp for other reasons.

“WhatsApp has expressly stated in its privacy policy that it will be sharing data with Facebook,” Sharan Chawla, a data-privacy analyst at Kazient Privacy Experts in London, told Digital Privacy News.

“WhatsApp has been doing this before as well,” he added. “However, it is being transparent about it for the first time.”

He noted how Facebook closed the $19 billion deal to buy WhatsApp in October 2014 — “and this is how it plans to profit: with our data?”

Chawla cited how EU residents were protected by the General Data Protection Regulation, which took effect in 2018.

“The proposed changes raise grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens.”

Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

“Long story short, you either get privacy if your country has strong data-protection laws — or you pay for your privacy,” he said.

Despite guarantees that chat data would remain encrypted, experts also raised concerns over sharing such metadata as IP addresses, location and cellphone numbers with Facebook. 

“Metadata — or, simply, ‘digital footprints’ — can reveal a lot of information,” said Kadlaskar. 

“It can be used for profiling, online behavioral targeting and surveillance.

“Even though this policy mentions what information it intends to collect, the words ‘such as’ in the ‘Information We Collect’ section hint that they would be collecting more information than stated,” she said.

Tweets From Leader

Will Cathcart, who leads WhatsApp, tried to quell the uproar in a Jan. 9 Twitter post.

“With end-to-end encryption, we cannot see your private chats or calls and neither can Facebook,” he said. “We’re committed to this technology and committed to defending it globally.

“This update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices with Facebook.”

Will Cathcart, WhatsApp.

“It’s important for us to be clear this update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices with Facebook.

“It does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world,” Cathcart said.

Multiple Legal Actions

But Cathcart’s tweets failed to assuage Indian officials, who argued in a Jan. 25 High Court hearing on Rohilla’s petition that “this differential treatment is certainly a cause of concern for the government.

“It is also a matter of concern for the government that Indian users are being unilaterally subjected to the changes in the privacy policy.”

But the court countered that WhatsApp was a private service and that downloading it was optional. 

“It is not mandatory to download it,” the court ruled, according to documents. “Every other app has similar terms and conditions regarding sharing of user information with others.”

After deferring the case until April, the Delhi High Court rejected WhatsApp’s petition to quash an investigation by the Competition Commission of India into the company for being anti-competitive.

“You either get privacy if your country has strong data-protection laws — or you pay for your privacy.”

Sharan Chawla, Kazient Privacy Experts.

In addition, two Indian college students sued WhatsApp in the Indian Supreme Court, seeking a stay of the new policy.

In a Feb. 15 hearing, Chief Justice S.A. Bobde said: “People have grave concern about their privacy.

“You may be a two-trillion or three-trillion company, but people value their privacy more.” 

The Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court are considering other petitions challenging WhatsApp’s policy.

Aishwarya Jagani is a writer in India.

Sources: