Govt vs WhatsApp on Privacy Policy: Will India Ban WhatsApp?

MEitY has pointed out how WhatsApp’s new privacy policy violated several provisions of Indian laws and rules.

Tech and Auto
3 min read
The Indian government has warned instant messaging platform WhatsApp for the second time to roll back its updated controversial privacy policy.

The Indian government on Tuesday, 18 May, has warned instant messaging platform WhatsApp for the second time to roll back its updated controversial privacy policy.

This time, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) gave WhatsApp a seven-day ultimatum. If no satisfactory response is received, necessary steps in consonance with the law will be taken, said ministry sources.

What Did the Letter Say?

The letter from MeitY gave the messaging platform two options:

  • To either withdraw the updated privacy policy completely.
  • To come up with a 'satisfactory response'.

MeitY also pointed out how WhatsApp’s new privacy policy violated several provisions of Indian laws and rules.


Why Is WhatsApp's Privacy Policy Controversial?

WhatsApp has been pushing for universal acceptance of its updated privacy policy for quite some time now and the updated policy allows the platform as well as its parent company, Facebook, and related third parties, to access user metadata, even when they may not be using all of the applications. The policy has been made mandatory for all users.

The Quint spoke to cyber policy expert Prashant Guruswamy, CoFounder of Instasafe, to understand the concerns associated with WhatsApp's new privacy update.

Guruswamy believes that when the privacy policy is seen on a granular, case-by-case basis, such data may hold little or no importance. But from a bird’s eye perspective, the aspect of macro data blocks being scrutinised, and used for targeting latent preferences of the users may amount to a 'blatant invasion of privacy'.

"The absence of strict privacy regulations and the virtual state of limbo that the current privacy bill is in accounts for improper usage of sensitive information by corporates," he added.

India’s Data Protection Bill has been discussed at length for some time now, and a ratification of the same is necessary before the judiciary is able to take a concrete stand against instances of privacy invasion by corporates.

What Are the Options for WhatsApp in India?

European users can still opt out of the privacy policy, an option that has been made possible because of robust GDPR laws.

This was followed by Germany completely banning the update and pushing for the same at the European level. The German authorities further said that since they were unaware of the particular consequences that approval would have on the users, it could set dangerous precedents concerning privacy intrusion.

Guruswamy said that WhatsApp may have to follow uniform policies in both EU and India and make acceptance of the updated rules optional in India as well.

"WhatsApp cannot afford to lose a market of more than 450 million users. But given that Facebook has a long term plan of integration of all its messaging services, updates of this nature may be deemed necessary, which means that this may be a stop-gap solution while it tries to find a new way to implement its strategy."

WhatsApp has only two options currently, explains Guruswamy:

  • The messaging platform will certainly try to elucidate on the dispute that this update may be used for user profiling and also try to explain why it wants to push the update before the Data Protection Bill is passed.
  • It may also try to decrease the number of prompts or reminders being sent to users regarding the acceptance of the policies.

Can India Ban WhatsApp?

With two government warnings, WhatsApp is most likely to find it difficult to push through the latest privacy policy update, according to cyber and legal experts.

Kazim Rizvi, Director of The Dialogue, told The Quint that India can ban any app, although banning WhatsApp won't be the right thing to do as it will affect India-US relations.

Guruswamy, on the other hand, believes that India may soon go the Germany way, banning the current update if it doesn’t find the responses satisfactory, or ask for a stay on the update until after the passing of a concrete Data Protection Bill.

The Quint reached out to Delhi-based lawyer Manu Seshadri who said that the government has very limited power under the IT Act to take action against WhatsApp.

"Even the Data Protection Bill is at a draft stage. What remains to be seen is whether WhatsApp's decision to amend its privacy policy is violative of the right to privacy as articulated by the Supreme Court. I understand there are proceedings before the Supreme Court, challenging the proposed changes as violative of the right to privacy. It would not be advisable for WhatsApp to make those changes when the question is pending consideration before the Supreme Court," he added.

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