Friday 28 January 2022
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WhatsApp keeps on hold new privacy policy until data protection law enforcement

WhatsApp announced that it will not delete the accounts of users but would limit the functionality of the app for them

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Senior Advocate Harish Salve on 9 July told the Delhi High Court that WhatsApp would not enforce its privacy policies until the Data Protection Bill came into force. Salve, appearing on behalf of WhatsApp and Facebook, said the new privacy policy was on hold.

“The government has asked to shut down the policy. We have said we will not enforce it till the Data Protection Bill is passed. That is open-ended because we don’t know when the Bill is going to come out,” Harish Salve said during the hearing at the Delhi High Court.

Harish Salve further told the Delhi High Court, “We have said we will not do this [enforce policy] for a while. Suppose the Bill allows me to do it, we will have completely different ramifications.”

Harish Salve said, “The MeiTy [Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology] feels WhatsApp’s privacy policy is against Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Data or Information) Rules 2011,”

“We replied to MeiTy’s notice seeking a response, saying that WhatsApp will not limit functionality for some time and continue to show users the updated version of its app,” Harish Salve said.

“We will maintain this approach until the Data Protection Bill comes into force. We have voluntarily agreed to put the update on hold till then,” Salve said.

Harish Salve further pointed that the “challenge to the privacy policy and challenge to CCI (Competition Commission of India) order for probe are different”. “Eighty per cent to 90% is related to the privacy policy challenge,” he said.

WhatsApp’s privacy policy was first announced in January and the initial roll-out was scheduled for February but, the platform delayed it till 15 May, citing concerns around it. WhatsApp had said that it would use these three months to educate users and make them understand that their data is still safe.

One of the contentious points in the initial policy was WhatsApp telling users who refuse to accept its privacy policy that their accounts would be deleted. This led to an immediate backlash and a lot of users started moving to other platforms like Signal and Telegram. The only two options offered were either stopping using the app or accepting it. On the other hand, Android users got a chance to select “Not now” which meant they initially had a way out.

Later, WhatsApp announced that it would not delete the accounts of users but would limit the functionality of the app for them. This meant that while users would continue to receive messages or calls, they would not be able to reply to them. This confused users about the way the app would work after the restrictions came in.

Facebook and WhatsApp, on their part, explained that the new privacy policy was necessary because WhatsApp had to share some info with Facebook to implement the e-commerce features in the app.

It was necessary for the app to make the business accounts function better.

The company said that it was all for the benefit of users. It argued that the changes in data sharing with Facebook enabled by the new privacy policy only concerned the business accounts and the chats users would do with such accounts.

However, most users were not convinced. They saw that WhatsApp was going to share more data with Facebook and that spooked them. They did not like the fact that WhatsApp was telling them to accept the policy or else lose access to the app.

In an affidavit filed before the Delhi High Court earlier in June, the Centre had told Court that WhatsApp indulges in anti-users practices by obtaining ‘trick consent’ from users for its updated privacy policy.

Responding to this, a WhatsApp spokesperson said, “We reiterate that we have already responded to the Government of India and assured them that the privacy of users remains our highest priority. As a reminder, the recent update does not change the privacy of people’s personal messages. Its purpose is to provide additional information about how people can interact with businesses if they choose to do so.”

“We will not limit the functionality of how WhatsApp works in the coming weeks. Instead, we will continue to remind users from time to time about the update as well as when people choose to use relevant optional features, like communicating with a business that is receiving support from Facebook. We hope this approach reinforces the choice that all users have whether or not they want to interact with a business. We will maintain this approach until at least the forthcoming PDP law comes into effect,” the spokesperson had said.

WhatsApp might have decided not to implement restrictions for now, but the platform has left a window open for future action by stating that its current stance would last only until the Indian government came up with a Personal Data Protection (PDP) law.

The PDP bill will restrict apps and platforms from collecting, processing and sharing personal and sensitive data of the users. But, the law is not coming into effect anytime soon. The union government needs to ensure that there are strict guidelines when it does.

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