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WhatsApp should withdraw new privacy policy, says MeitY in new notice

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The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has sent a new notice to WhatsApp asking the Facebook-owned messaging platform to withdraw its updated privacy policy, calling it an undermining of the values of informational privacy and data security.

In the communication sent late on Tuesday, the IT ministry has given WhatsApp time till May 25 to respond to the new notice, failing which “all necessary steps in consonance with the law” could be taken against the platform.

“We have a sovereign responsibility to protect the rights and interests of Indian citizens. The government will consider various options available under the law,” a senior IT ministry official said.

The latest communication sent to WhatsApp, the officials said, has reiterated that “the changes to the privacy policy and the manner of introducing these changes including in FAQ (frequently asked questions) undermines the sacrosanct values of informational privacy, data security and user choice for Indian users and harms the rights and interests of Indian citizens”.

This is the second such communication sent by the IT ministry asking WhatsApp to withdraw its controversial privacy policy. Earlier this year in January, the ministry had written a letter to Will Cathcart, the global Chief Executive Officer of WhatsApp, asking him to withdraw the latest privacy and policy update on the instant messaging platform.

The privacy update, the IT ministry letter had then said, enabled WhatsApp and other Facebook companies “to make invasive and precise inferences about users”.
Collection and sharing of sensitive data such as the time, frequency and duration of interactions, group names or payments and transaction data with Facebook companies will create an ecosystem where any distinction between WhatsApp and other companies of the Facebook group will cease to exist, the IT ministry had then said.

“This approach has the potential to infringe on core values of data privacy, user choice and autonomy of Indian users. Given the huge user base of WhatsApp and Facebook in India, the consolidation of this sensitive information also exposes a very large segment of Indian citizens to greater information security risk and vulnerabilities creating a potential honeypot of information,” the IT ministry said in the letter to Cathcart.

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In the new notice sent on Tuesday, the IT ministry once again took up the issue of discriminatory treatment to Indian WhatsApp users compared to those in Europe, sources said.

“As you are doubtlessly aware, many Indian citizens depend on WhatsApp to communicate in everyday life. It is not just problematic, but also irresponsible, for WhatsApp to leverage this position to impose unfair terms and conditions on Indian users, particularly those that discriminate against Indian users vis-à-vis users in Europe,” the new notice read.

This issue was also raised by the ministry in its January letter when it had said that WhatsApp’s accept-the-terms-or-leave-the-platform stance for users in India when the same did not apply to its European users, betrayed a lack of respect for the rights and interests” of Indian users.

Later in March, the IT ministry had taken a similar stand before the Delhi High Court, where through an affidavit it had said WhatsApp must be barred from rolling out its new privacy policy as it violated several existing IT rules. During a hearing on Monday, WhatsApp had, despite the objections raised by the ministry, told the court that it intended to go ahead with the rollout of the new privacy policy as planned and had not pushed the deadline beyond May 15.

The May 15 deadline had been announced by the Facebook-owned instant messaging platform in January this year after users and privacy experts raised concerns over the new policy. The initial deadline to accept the new terms was February 8.

With over 400 million users, India is one of the biggest markets for WhatsApp. As of July 2020, the company had more than 50 million WhatsApp Business users globally, of which over 15 million used the service in India every month.

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