WhatsApp puts ‘take it or leave it’ privacy policy on hold in India: Timeline of events surrounding the controversial update

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Updated: July 10, 2021 1:39 PM

WhatsApp Privacy Policy: The Facebook-owned platform had announced a new privacy policy in January this year, and shortly after, a global outrage and mass migration to alternative apps had been witnessed.

In January this year, WhatsApp sent out global messages that it was updating its privacy policy.

WhatsApp privacy policy issue: After months of court cases and public outrage, WhatsApp has finally told the Delhi High Court that it is putting its controversial privacy policy on hold until the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDP) is enforced in India. The Facebook-owned platform had announced a new privacy policy in January this year, and shortly after, a global outrage and mass migration to alternative apps had been witnessed. The policy was also criticised in India, and the platform was dragged into court cases by people as well as industry bodies here. But what is the entire issue and what is happening with WhatsApp in India?

Also read | Wondering if you have been blocked by someone on WhatsApp? Here’s how you can check

The new WhatsApp privacy policy and the controversy

In January this year, WhatsApp sent out global messages that it was updating its privacy policy. While there was nothing new in that, the issue was that under this policy, WhatsApp said that more of its data including chats would be shared with Facebook, which is already in trouble for misusing user data. Moreover, the users did not have the choice to opt-out of the update. The ‘take it or leave it’ policy of WhatsApp gave users about a month to accept the policy or they would not be able to use the app anymore.

Soon after, tech mogul Elon Musk advocated the not-for-profit messaging platform Signal, and what followed was a mass migration of users from WhatsApp to competitors like Telegram and Signal.

During this time, WhatsApp tried to issue several clarifications that the additional data that would be shared with Facebook would only be with reference to the business accounts that operate on the instant messaging platform, and that no personal chats – individual or group – would be shared since they continue to be placed under end-to-end encryption.

Still, the outrage forced WhatsApp to delay the implementation of the policy to mid-May.

WhatsApp issue in India

Looking at the public outrage, the IT Ministry in India decided to look at the new privacy policy, and also sought responses from WhatsApp to numerous questions it posed.

Moreover, cases regarding its privacy policy are pending in the Supreme Court as well as several benches of the Delhi High Court. Amid this, numerous industry bodies like CAIT, at their levels reached out to the Government of India, seeking a ban on the instant messaging service due to its controversial policy or seeking a Europe-like exemption for Indian users from the policy.

Also read | CCI probe: WhatsApp tells Delhi High Court new privacy policy is on hold

Meanwhile, the Competition Commission of India filed a case against WhatsApp for allegedly misusing its dominant position in the market to curtail user rights. While all the other pleas had been focused on the policy itself, the CCI pea focused on the implication of the update – that WhatsApp was taking advantage of the fact that it had built a huge userbase and was the preferred messaging app for personal as well as professional communication and using it as a leverage to not give users a choice regarding the new update. While the Delhi HC had in the initial days after the announcement of the policy said that WhatsApp was not mandatory to download, it is important to note that WhatsApp is long past the point of being a platform for informal communication as many organisational groups also function on the instant messaging service. Due to the intertwined nature of WhatsApp with the personal and professional world, WhatsApp clearly attempted to strongarm its users into accepting the updated privacy policy.

However, over the course of time, while WhatsApp implemented the new policy on May 15, it did not lock the accounts of those users who did not accept the updated terms. Now, the company has said in Delhi HC during a hearing of the CCI probe case, that it has “voluntarily” decided to put the policy on hold, meaning that users who have not yet accepted the terms would not lose control or any functionality of their accounts at least for the foreseeable future, though they will continue to receive messages and updates regarding the policy, which can be seen as an attempt to create nuisance and irritate users into accepting the updates terms.

By-product: Stronger alternatives to WhatsApp

A key by-product from this entire ordeal surrounding WhatsApp is the rise in stronger alternatives to WhatsApp. During a short period of mass migration, Telegram and Signal upped their games and offered unprecedented features, including transfer of entire chats from WhatsApp to their platforms, so that users would be able to transition conveniently. Though WhatsApp is still dominant due to migrating users splitting between Telegram and Signal, there are at least alternatives that people can look at some time in the future, all while without having to lose their WhatsApp chat data.

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