Facebook, Whatsapp case: Put privacy policies under legal framework

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Published: September 30, 2016 6:24:36 AM

The recent Delhi High Court’s ruling askied WhatsApp to scrub all data belonging to those users who delete the messaging app from their devices.

WhatsApp’s revised policy is facing similar hurdles around the world, with the European Union and the US Federal Trade Commission.WhatsApp’s revised policy is facing similar hurdles around the world, with the European Union and the US Federal Trade Commission.

Following the recent Delhi High Court’s ruling asking WhatsApp to scrub all data belonging to those users who delete the messaging app from their devices, a German privacy watchdog has also asked Facebook to stop collecting and storing information about WhatsApp users in the country.

The Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information has ordered the social networking giant to delete all data that it has already received after terming its current practices aimed at misleading the public, an infringement of its data protection law.

WhatsApp’s revised policy is facing similar hurdles around the world, with the European Union and the US Federal Trade Commission.

Even the Federation of German Consumer Organisations has described the new policy as a betrayal by WhatsApp. “When Facebook took over WhatsApp in February 2014, it pledged that the WhatsApp service would remain independent. Consumers trusted that their information would remain with WhatsApp alone and that no information would be transferred to Facebook. Their trust was broken,” it said.

It has also been reported that the relevant authorities from the office of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK have already commenced investigation into the changes made to privacy Policy of Whatsapp, and whether users are being informed of the consequences. In a 2011 settlement with the FTC, the company had agreed that it would always ask users for permission before making changes to its privacy practices. The FTC is also looking into whether WhatsApp’s recent changes violated that agreement.

While Delhi HC had passed an order against WhatsApp, according to Mashable, the messaging app has no plans to comply with the HC order. The company has stated that they will share all information with Facebook and its affiliated advertisers as planned, in direct violation of the order. This includes, but is not limited to, location data, device data, email IDs, phone numbers, contact details, when you were last seen online, etc.

Whatsapp, which was launched as a service in 2010 was purchased by Facebook for $19 billion in February 2014. WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum had then said that nothing would change in terms of privacy for users, but, on August 25, Whatsapp made extensive changes to its privacy policy.

Following the update, two students—Karmanya Singh Sareen and Shreya Sethi—approached the Delhi HC, alleging that WhatsApp’s new policy violated the rights and privacy of millions of users. Their PIL, akin to a class action, called for a rollback of August policy updates.

For a country like India, which is still finding its direction with respect to Right of Privacy, the HC decision came as a big dent to Facebook and WhatsApp. Senior advocate Prathiba Singh, who argued for the case, termed the HC order as “a path-breaking judgement which will create a sensitivity among people about data sharing.”

The decision besides strengthening calls for user privacy, can add another dimension to the ongoing debate on net neutrality.

“All the laws that apply to physical world also apply to the internet world. What is required is the institutional mechanism to deal with new type of cyber crimes like cyber bullying. Protection of user privacy is also possible. Self regulation in this internet age is a must. Besides, substantive clarity and enforcement mechanism can take care of all these problems,” says Shreya Singhal, who was instrumental in getting the controversial Section 66A of the Indian Information Technology Act that impedes freedom of speech and expression struck down last year.

Experts feel that with so much digital data being generated, there is a need for a privacy law in the country. The term “user consent” is meaningless in India as most users aren’t equipped to read or comprehend the consequences of the privacy policy changes.

“User should be given an option ‘do not share’ along with other options. Sharing of information should be voluntary,” lawyer Adit Khorana adds.

The usage of internet messaging services and other internet / mobile based services has grown exponentially in India. India’s internet penetration has increased over the past few years and has grown from 238 million users in June 2015 to 306 million users in December 2015. By 2016, the number of internet users in India has been projected to reach 371 million users.

Whatsapp has become one of the most successful messaging services in India, with a collective user base of 70 million users. This number is likely to rise with the availability of more affordable smart phones and the recent Digital India campaign run by the government. Facebook, a social networking platform, is a much more public platform and has a user base of around 142 million users in India and 1.59 billion users worldwide.

Under these circumstances several apprehensions about the privacy policy/data sharing policies of Whatsapp and Facebook are legitimate. There is an immediate need and necessity for setting up a legal framework to regulate the privacy policies of such internet messaging services to maintain the sanctity of the private and confidential information shared by the users.

On legal front, one has to watch for either an appeal by the WhatsApp or a contempt of court plea against it for not complying with the court orders.

indu.bhan@expressindia.com

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