Govt asks WhatsApp to withdraw proposed user policy changes: sources

The government has sent a strongly worded letter to WhatsApp CEO on its proposed user policy changes and sought responses to very pointed queries on how it plans to protect users privacy in India, according to sources in MeitY.
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The government has expressed grave concerns on WhatsApp's recent policy changes and sought specific responses from the messaging app on how it will continue to protect the privacy rights of the citizens, according to sources in MeitY.

In a strongly worded letter from the Union Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) to WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart, it sought responses from the company on how it goes about collecting information from Indian users and also how it shares this data with its parent company Facebook.

Our sources in the government said that the letter has asked WhatsApp to withdraw the proposed changes and reconsider its approach on how it treats privacy, data security, and freedom of choice for Indian citizens.

In its letter, the Indian government has sought clarifications from WhatsApp on its privacy, data transfer, and sharing policies and general business practices.

It noted, “The proposed changes raise grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens. Therefore, you are called upon to withdraw the proposed changes. Further, you are urged to reconsider your approach to respect the informational privacy, freedom of choice and data security of Indian citizens.”

The ministry reminded the CEO that India is one of the largest markets for WhatsApp, and thereby, the company should care about protecting the privacy of Indian citizens.

On the proposed privacy policy and terms of service changes by WhatsApp, the letter noted, “These changes enable WhatsApp, and other Facebook Companies, to make invasive and precise inferences about users which may not be reasonably foreseen or expected by users in the ordinary course of accessing these services.“

It noted that WhatsApp proposes to collect highly invasive and granular metadata such as time, frequency, and duration of interactions, group names, payments and transaction data, online status, location indicators, as well as any messages shared by users with business accounts. It added that the company is not providing users with the option to opt-out of this integration of social media platforms.

According to the letter, “Whether this will enable better provision of services to users or not is besides the point; the issue is the impact it has on informational privacy, data security, and user choice."

The Ministry was very clear that the proposed new changes have the potential to infringe the core values of data privacy, user choice, and the autonomy of Indian users. It also bought out the differential treatment that WhatsApp will bring about due to these proposed changes.

The government wrote, “In this context, it is an issue of great concern that the ability to opt-out of data sharing with Facebook Companies is not provided to Indian users who are being subjected to differential treatment when compared to their European counterparts with comparatively less choice."

Our sources in MeitY said that the letter also reminded the WhatsApp CEO that the Indian Parliament is in the final stages of coming out with laws to protect data privacy and such changes by the messaging app would be harmful.

“We expect that this sovereign independence of India's distinct identity and its people must be properly respected and any unilateral changes to the WhatsApp Terms of Service and Privacy would not be fair and acceptable,” the letter noted.

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta

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