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Terms and conditions are subject to change.

The recent change in WhatsApp’s policies has sparked of a discussion, especially given that it possibly has over 100 million users in India, and is a key tool for both personal and political communication, despite not having an open API. A few points for your consideration:

1. Products and businesses have to adapt to the rapidly changing and ever-changing business and regulatory environment that is the Internet, and a part of the evolution of businesses is changes in their policy. Lets not forget that the Internet is a space of hyper-competition where businesses have to keep evolving in order to remain relevant and quite often have to force change on consumers to stay ahead of competition. Facebook has a history of doing this, especially with its own privacy policy. Given WhatsApp’s promise of no advertising and no sharing of data, this feels like betrayal, and should be highlighted, but it really shouldn’t surprise us.

2. As someone mentioned, Data is the new oil. In a networked world, where phone numbers are identifiers, as are IMEI numbers, there is the opportunity to track users, usage, and identify multiple data points. These can be used to provide better services, but there’s also the challenge that if we were to not provide the data that is demanded, the service would not be provided to us. We are trading our privacy for services. To some extent, it is in our hands. We can choose to use other services. People shifted from Orkut to Facebook because Facebook was better at privacy than Orkut. In the same way, people can choose to switch from WhatsApp to a potentially more secure messaging service like Signal.

3. What’s problematic is that users are no longer in control of their information (read: We are data). The onus is on users to take responsibility of their data, and not blindly click “I agree”. They need to find ways of preventing access to and collection of their data. Laws have to evolve to provide users that power, and inform users about data being collected from them. Laws will never be able to keep pace with technology, but there’s an urgent need for lawmakers to at least try. So far, they are failing us. The gap between technology deployment and legal oversight is both useful (because it allows for evolution of technology), but can also be problematic.

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4. Facebook apparently tracks as many as 98 data points to target users for advertising. The rapid growth in its advertising, especially on mobile, is a testament to the targeting it provides advertisers, making advertising more relevant. Most users aren’t aware of what kind of data Facebook collects in order to provide this targeting, but frankly, that is true of Google as well. If you have Facebook on your phone, it typically has access to your entire contact list, as do many other apps. Facebook’s battle with ad blockers is a testament to how the company is trying to protect its turf.

5. The addition of WhatsApp metadata allows Facebook better targeting: when you’re online, how long you’re online, your number, location etc. WhatsApp also collects third party link data when external links are placed on the platform. They will also track transaction data, which means that transactions will soon make it to WhatsApp.

6. WhatsApp has end to end encryption, so Facebook won’t get access to actual messages, because, in all probability, even WhatsApp doesn’t have access to them. This also means that the government won’t get access to it. The Indian government desperately wants access to WhatsApp data, and there are backroom discussions taking place regarding encryption. (Read: The legal position of Encryption in India)

7. I do feel that the way WhatsApp implemented its new terms and conditions was disingenuous: didn’t communicate the changes in a simpler manner (look at how Facebook currently implements privacy settings), and more importantly, hid the opt-out option a couple of taps away from the initial page.

8. We’re also all at the mercy of privacy terms defined by WhatsApp and Facebook because India doesn’t have a privacy law. There’s an opportunity for a privacy law in India, so that global companies are forced to conform to our privacy laws, instead of forcing Indians to conform to their privacy terms. The Indian government has said in the Supreme Court that there is no fundamental right to privacy, which is shameful. Laws must be geared towards ensuring rights for citizens, and not what currently happens, where laws are meant to give the state overwhelming potentially feudalistic power over citizens: the Aadhaar implementation in the absence of Parliamentary sanction, and later, the Aadhaar act without adequate privacy protection are problematic. Read: Privacy concerns in the Aadhaar Act, 2016.

9. While we worry about privacy on WhatsApp, lets not forget that much of regular calling and SMS in India is unencrypted and is being tracked by the Indian government’s Centralised Monitoring System. It also wants to lower encryption to gain access to all WhatsApp messages and all WhatsApp and Skype calling. We need a privacy law, and we need to ensure that the government doesn’t make citizens less secure by forcing the lowering of encryption.

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Written By

Founder @ MediaNama. TED Fellow. Asia21 Fellow @ Asia Society. Co-founder SaveTheInternet.in and Internet Freedom Foundation. Advisory board @ CyberBRICS

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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