New WhatsApp policy: Chaos & clarification

WhatsApp has issued clarifications that the new policy does not interfere with users privacy.


NEW DELHI: It was over a decade ago that Mashable CEO Pete Cashmore wrote a scathing critique of an increasingly wired world and concluded by saying, “Privacy is dead, and social media hold the smoking gun.” Today, as wildly popular messaging app WhatsApp attempts to strongarm its users to adhere to a less than transparent privacy policy, Cashmore’s words may seem quite prophetic to a lot of people.

It all started last week with an innocuous message that popped up when people opened WhatsApp. Or so it would seem. Rather, it started over two years ago when Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg expressed his intent to integrate the social networking giant with its subsidiaries Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. Even then, questions about anti-trust, privacy and security were raised, only to be brushed under the rug. Those same questions are being echoed again now, as WhatsApp’s upgraded privacy policy indicates it will share commercial user data with parent company Facebook. It further states how the platform is processing user data to offer integrations across the Facebook family of apps and how businesses can use Facebook-hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats.

The message circulated mentioned that the new policy will be effective starting 8 February and failing to accept that the users would have to move out of the platform.

Several clauses – such as storing media messages, automatic collection of information, sharing information with Facebook and third-party businesses and service providers – did not go down well with the masses and governments alike, leading to immediate and widespread backlash. People were not comfortable with sharing information with Facebook without their authorisation, given its previous record in handling users’ data.

Perhaps anticipating the furore, WhatsApp trotted out a clarification: "This update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data.” The messaging platform has always maintained that all chats, conversations and media on it are completely encrypted and no third party or even WhatsApp could access them. It doesn't keep logs of who a person messages or calls, nor does it keep tabs on a user's exact location. It doesn't share the user's contact list or group data with Facebook. The app reminded users that for additional privacy, messages can be set to disappear, and their personal data can also be downloaded on request.

However, messaging with businesses is different than messaging with your family or friends. With Facebook branded commerce features like Shops, some businesses will display their goods right within WhatsApp so people can see what’s available to buy. If a user chooses to interact with Shops, their shopping activity can be used to personalise their Shops experience, which will reflect in the ads they see on Facebook and Instagram.

“Whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook. To make sure you’re informed, we clearly label conversations with businesses that are choosing to use hosting services from Facebook,” the messaging app said.

But fears are far from allayed. Privacy experts and anti-trust bodies have been raising the alarm despite reassurances that the sharing of information is to improve infrastructure and delivery systems and help businesses that transact on the platform to better manage their services and communications with clients. Consequently, a trickle has begun – flowing out from WhatsApp and into rival messaging apps like Telegram and Signal. The latter has been endorsed by everyone from Elon Musk to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and has shot to the top of Apple and Google’s app store charts in the last 48 hours. Start-ups and big corp are making the switch, giving credence to the data security risks of staying on WhatsApp after the updated privacy policy comes into force.

The ministry of electronics and information technology is also scrutinising the new policy and its implications for the draft Data Protection Bill, which proposes to put restrictions on use of personal data without explicit consent of individuals. Bharucha & Partners partner Kaushik Moitra pointed out that while the bill has not become a law yet, privacy is still recognised as a fundamental right under articles 14, 19 and 21. WhatsApp has downplayed the importance of this fundamental right.

The messaging service has over 2.7 billion users globally and nearly 340 million users in India. When this news broke out, there were discussions about people deleting WhatsApp and joining other platforms. However, it’s easier said than done; the app is indispensable to instantly connect with friends, family, lovers and service providers for huge swathes of the populace. Elara Capital VP Karan Taurani and dentsu India CEO Anand Bhadkamkar were of the same mind – that people will not shift their conversations away from WhatsApp overnight. Taurani estimated that only 15 -20 per cent of the audience may shift from the platform.

So far, WhatsApp had indulged its users in allowing them not to share their information, a freedom not afforded to them by the industry at large – take Google or Microsoft Office’s terms of service, for instance. With the new policy, people have to make the choice – they can hit ‘accept’ and consent to big tech’s latest data pooling manoeuvre, or sign out for good. Most will say there is no choice in the matter at all – and unless regulators step in and show willingness to formulate strict data protection laws, netizens will only see their freedom to choose shrinking with every passing day.

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