Editorial: Protecting privacy

The revised privacy policy of WhatsApp is a reminder for India to put in place a robust data protection policy

AuthorPublished: 22nd May 2021  12:00 amUpdated: 21st May 2021  7:28 pm

The revised privacy policy of the social media platform WhatsApp has come under scanner. While the finer details of the new policy, which makes it mandatory for the users to accept, are debatable, what it reminds us is the need for India to put in place a robust data protection policy to uphold the citizens’ right to privacy. If the country had a data protection law in place, WhatsApp would not have been able to go ahead with this update in the first place. Unfortunately, the proposed data protection law has been languishing for over two years now. Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy guidelines will not be applicable in the European Region, thanks to the data protection law in place there. The company is legally bound to not share user data with Facebook in the European Region because it would be a contravention of the provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy essentially takes away the choice users had until now to not share their data with other Facebook-owned and third-party apps. If users do not agree with the updated privacy policy, they will have to quit the messaging platform. India’s position is that it is unfair for the company to impose discriminatory conditions to strengthen its position in the market. On its part, the company has clarified that the new privacy policy was needed to make business accounts function better. In European countries, fines have been imposed on Facebook for integrating WhatsApp data.

The new policy details how WhatsApp’s service handles the user data and how it integrates across multiple apps, including Instagram and Facebook Messenger, in order to provide services and customise the experience for the user. However, there have been question marks over transparency, as users question the need to collect so much data in the guise of protecting commercial interests. With every detail of a person available at the click of a mouse, privacy concerns are justified. There have also been reports of data mined from social media platforms being used to influence the electoral prospects of candidates. In times of the pandemic, with most work switching over to the digital form, the need for privacy and checking intrusion will be felt even more. While the company claims its messages are end-to-end encrypted and can neither be read nor stored, its need for sharing of data calls for more scrutiny. WhatsApp had faced flak earlier too when it was alleged that the platform was being used to forward messages whose authenticity could not be verified, leading to the proliferation of fake news. The Union government has been arguing that the new policy is a violation of the Indian Information Technology law.

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