User privacy highest priority: WhatsApp response to govt affidavit in Court | Business Standard News

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Messaging platform says govt is trying to stop privacy policy update, which is a private contract between WhatsApp and its users, without any legitimate factual or legal bases

WhatsApp on Thursday said that the privacy of users remains its highest priority, and its recent update was not going to compromise the privacy of people’s personal chats.

The messaging service’s statement came after the Centre filed an affidavit in the Delhi High Court on Thursday, saying users were being “forced” to accept the company’s privacy policy update before the Personal Data Protection Bill becomes the law.

“We reiterate that we have already responded to the Government of India and assured them that the privacy of users remains our highest priority. As a reminder, the 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,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement.

Terming WhatsApp’s bombarding of notifications on its customers as an “anti-user practice” for obtaining “trick consent”, the central government has urged the court to direct the messaging platform to desist from pushing notifications onto its existing users with regard to the new privacy policy, news agency PTI reported.

The Centre’s claim has been made in an additional affidavit filed in response to several pleas challenging the new privacy policy of WhatsApp.

In an affidavit filed before the Court on June 1, WhatsApp had said the government was trying to stop the privacy policy update, which is “a private contract between WhatsApp and its users, without any legitimate factual or legal bases”.

WhatsApp had introduced changes to its privacy policy in December. It had earlier set a deadline of February 8 for these changes but deferred it to May 15 after a backlash with wide fears over data being shared with Facebook and the Indian government asking WhatsApp to withdraw its policy.

In an update earlier to its frequently asked questions page, the Facebook-owned messaging service said it would give everyone time to review, and continue to remind those who haven’t had the chance to do so to review and accept. After a period of several weeks, the reminder people receive will “eventually become persistent”.

“We will not limit the functionality of how WhatsApp works in the coming weeks. Instead, we will continue to remind users from time to time about the update as well as when people choose to use relevant optional features, like communicating with a business that is receiving support from Facebook. We hope this approach reinforces the choice that all users have whether or not they want to interact with a business. We will maintain this approach until at least the forthcoming PDP law comes into effect,” WhatsApp added on Thursday.

One of the first pleas against the privacy policy update was moved by Chaitanya Rohilla, a lawyer, in January this year. Rohilla, represented by advocate Manohar Lal, has contended that the updated privacy policy violates users’ right to privacy under the Constitution and they can either accept it or exit the app, but they cannot opt not to share their data with other Facebook-owned or third party apps.

In its additional affidavit, which supports the petitioners claims, the Centre has said the privacy policy violates the rules as it fails to specify types of sensitive personal data being collected and also fails to notify users about details of the sensitive personal information which is collected, PTI reported.

It has also stated that WhatsApp was “indulging in anti-users practices by obtaining ‘trick consent’ from the users for its updated privacy policy”.

“It is submitted that millions of WhatsApp existing users, those who have not accepted the updated 2021 privacy policy are being bombarded with notifications on an everyday basis,” it has said.

The government has said that WhatsApp “has unleashed its digital prowess to the unsuspecting existing users and would like to force them to accept the updated 2021 privacy policy by flashing such notifications at a regular intervals”.

The government has sought directions to WhatsApp to place on record the number of times such notifications have been sent out till date on daily basis and what was the conversion rate — that is how many have accepted the updated 2021 privacy policy vis-a-vis the number of notifications.

WhatsApp, in its June 1 affidavit, has submitted that users were not previously given the option to completely opt-out of data sharing with Facebook or other third-party applications. “Moreover, WhatsApp is under no legal obligation to provide such opt-outs to its users. The law permits companies to not provide their services to users who do not consent to their terms. This is entirely common practice across the industry when online platforms update their terms,” it added.

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