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Update debate: On WhatsApp and privacy

Update debate: On WhatsApp and privacy

Privacy of citizens is too important to be left to the business practices of digital companies

 

WhatsApp’s decision to delay the update of its privacy policy, following a backlash from its users, is an implicit acknowledgement of the increasing role played by perceptions about privacy in the continued well-being of a popular service.

 

Problems for the Facebook-owned app started earlier this month when it announced an update to its terms of service and privacy policy, according to which users would no longer be able to opt out of sharing data with Facebook. February 8 was kept as the deadline for the new terms to be accepted. This triggered a mass exodus from WhatsApp, the likes of which it has never encountered, not even in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which did bring a lot of bad press to its parent, or when the messaging app’s co-founders called it quits a few years ago.

 

The WhatsApp policy update has clearly spooked many users, who, concerned about their privacy getting compromised, have shifted to alternative platforms such as Signal and Telegram. In recent weeks, according to media reports, messaging app Signal has topped the app store charts in India and many other countries. Interestingly, WhatsApp uses the same end-to-end encryption protocol as Signal.

 

An under-fire WhatsApp, on its part, has tried to allay fears about privacy being compromised because of the updates. It has put out numerous messages and taken out advertisements to convey that the changes are “related to optional business features on WhatsApp, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data”.

 

Millions of business interactions take place every day on WhatsApp, and the new privacy updates are supposedly to make these easier while also enabling personalised ads on Facebook. After all this, WhatsApp has pushed the update to May 15.

 

The change will ultimately be inevitable, given that WhatsApp, bought by Facebook for a whopping $19 billion and having subsequently given up plans to charge its users, would be betting on its handling of business interactions to make its big monies. Even then, it cannot force these changes on its users in Europe. For, Europe’s stringent General Data Protection Regulation, more popularly called GDPR, prevents such sharing between apps.

 

Users there are in control of their data much more than anywhere else in the world. India could do with such a law. All it has is a draft version of a law, and it has been so for a few years now. Privacy of a billion citizens is too important a thing to be left just to the practices of a commercial enterprise. It will be reassuring if it is guaranteed by a strong law.

 

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