WhatsApp Blinks (Hard) In Stand-Off With Government On Privacy Policy

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WhatsApp and its parent company, Facebook, have been served notices from the CCI (Representational)

Highlights

  • Harish Salve said WhatsApp voluntarily agreed to put new policy on hold
  • But WhatsApp will continue to display the update to its users, he said
  • WhatsApp’s new privacy policy was to come into effect in early February.

New Delhi:

WhatsApp on Friday told the Delhi High Court it would not force users to accept its controversial new privacy policy, or limit functionality for those who have opted not to accept those terms, until the government passes the Data Protection Bill, which specifies how such data can be processed.

“We voluntarily agreed to put it (the new policy) on hold… we will not compel people to accept,” senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for WhatsApp, told the court.

“We will not limit functionality of how WhatsApp works in the coming weeks. Instead, we will continue to remind users from time to time about the update… we will maintain this approach until at least the forthcoming PDP law comes into effect,” the company said in a statement issued after the hearing. 

The court was hearing a plea by the instant messaging platform and parent company Facebook challenging a CCI, or Competition Commission of India, inquiry.

The CCI had issued notices last month to ask for more information about the policy.

In an earlier hearing the court refused to stay the CCI notices.

WhatsApp had argued that the notices “smacked of overreach” since the information it was seeking was already pending before a different bench of the same court. It also reminded the court that related challenges were still pending before both the Supreme Court and itself.

Today Mr Salve told the court: “CCI is inquiring into a policy I (WhatsApp) have put on hold. If Parliament allows me to share data (under the Data Protection Bill) then CCI cannot say or probe anything. We have already put our updated privacy policy on hold till the bill is passed.”

The matter was adjourned after Mr Salve sought time to respond to the CCI.

WhatsApp’s new privacy policy was to have come into effect in early February.

However, faced with massive backlash from users concerned over potential violation of their privacy and sharing of data with Facebook (concerns that prompted the government to intervene), rollout was delayed till May 15, and then pushed back once more a week before that deadline.

At the time WhatsApp said that although a “majority of users who have received the new terms of service have accepted them”, it would not delete the accounts of those who were still holding out.

WhatsApp today said it “reiterates that privacy of users remains our highest priority”. The company said “… recent update does not change the privacy of people’s personal messages. Its purpose is to provide additional information about how people can interact with businesses if they choose to do so.”

Last month the centre told the Delhi High Court WhatsApp was trying to “force” users in to accepting the new policy before the Data Protection Bill becomes law.

It was doing so by bombarding users with notifications to obtain consent, the centre said.

This was after the government ordered WhatsApp to withdraw the policy, saying the changes undermined the privacy and data security of users and harmed the rights of Indian citizens.

The IT Ministry – which has now seen a leadership change amid this row, with Ashwini Vaishnaw replacing Ravi Shankar Prasad – pointed out to WhatsApp what it said was discriminatory treatment of Indian users vis-a-vis those in Europe, who did not have to compulsorily accept the new policy.

With 500 million+ users, India is WhatsApp’s biggest market and it has big plans for the country.



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