India needs data protection law

WhatsApp’s decision to delay the update of its private 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 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. It may have come as a shock to most Internet users that an app promising end-to-end encryption, and which routinely declines law enforcement enquiries with the excuse that it has no access to user chats. It is largely true that netizens sign off much of their rights overprized personal information when they sign on to social media platforms and the like. Big Tech has never been averse to building up their businesses and making money out of a large number of users running into millions.
The new policy essentially takes away the choice users had until now to not share their data with other Facebook-owned and third-party apps. While Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy has been stoking concerns about privacy and data sharing with other apps, what is being missed amid the clamour is this: if India had a data protection law in place, WhatsApp would not have been able to go ahead with this update in the first place. In fact, India’s data protection law has been languishing for two years by now.
WhatsApp was set up by two former employees of Yahoo!, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, who famously applied for jobs at Facebook but were rejected. At first, the idea behind the app was to simply show personalised statuses next to names of people on an iPhone. It was only after WhatsApp 2.0 was launched as a messaging application that the monthly active users for what was then a free app suddenly shot up to 250,000. WhatsApp was suddenly growing so fast that they decided to switch from being free to a paid service to avoid too rapid growth.
In 2010, the app introduced location sharing, in 2011 group chats, and in 2013 voice messaging. By April 2014, they had 500 million monthly active users. It was in October of that year that Facebook bought the company for $19 billion. At the time, the acquisition was the largest purchase of a venture-backed company in history.
In 2017, Facebook was fined $122 million by the EU’s antitrust authority for changing its privacy policy to allow advertisers on Facebook and Instagram to access data from WhatsApp, in spite of having informed the EU in 2014 that it couldn’t combine WhatsApp data with its other services. Both Acton and Koum have since left the company after much publicised ethical disagreements with Facebook about the future of the app and the protection of its users’ data. In spite of all that, the number of monthly active users of WhatsApp hit 1.5 billion in January 2018. In India, as the cost of mobile data stays low, the use of applications such as WhatsApp continues to increase.
WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy, which was made known on January 4, 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 of the messaging platform, they will have to quit WhatsApp by February 8 - when the new terms of service are set to come into effect. Had the data protection law or regulation been in place, this issue would not have arisen in the first place. Section 5 of the Personal Data Protection Bill, which was introduced by the Parliament, and which came out of the Srikrishna Committee Report, says that you can only use the information for purposes that are reasonably linked to the purpose for which the information was given. If that section was there, then this (the new update in WhatsApp’s privacy policy) would have been illegal. This is exactly the reason as to why users in the European Union are safe from this change.

- Prabhakar Purandare

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