Updated The Indian government has sent a fierce letter to Facebook over its decision to update the privacy rules around its WhatsApp chat service, and asked the antisocial media giant to put a halt to the plans.
In an email from the IT ministry to WhatsApp head Will Cathcart, provided to media outlets, the Indian government notes that the proposed changes “raise grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens.”
In particular, the ministry is incensed that European users will be given a choice to opt out over sharing WhatsApp data with the larger Facebook empire, as well as businesses using the platform to communicate with customers, while Indian users will not.
“This differential and discriminatory treatment of Indian and European users is attracting serious criticism and betrays a lack of respect for the rights and interest of Indian citizens who form a substantial portion of WhatsApp’s user base,” the letter says. It concludes by asking WhatsApp to “withdraw the proposed changes.”
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The reason that Europe is being treated as a special case by Facebook is, of course, the existence of the GDPR privacy rules that Facebook has repeatedly flouted and as a result faces pan-European legal action.
Facebook’s business model in large part relies on building vast and constantly updated profiles on billions of netizens that it then packages and sells to advertisers looking to target specific groups of individuals.
As such, privacy legislation that views such personal data as the property of an the individual who can require companies either not to gather that information, or to delete it if they do have it, represents an existential threat to Facebook.
There is another reason why Facebook is trying to inter-mingle its data with WhatsApp: it’s trying to make it hard for regulators to force the chat service to be spun off as part of a broader antitrust action against Facebook. The more Facebook entwines its services, the more it can argue that any such action would be detrimental to its business.
The proposed changes however had upset huge numbers of WhatsApp users and lead to a massive uptake in downloads of its rivals’ apps – including Signal and Telegram. In response, WhatsApp said last week it would delay the introduction of the new policy from next month to May.
While Facebook is not obliged to follow the clear demand from the Indian IT ministry absent any actual Indian laws that provide the same degree of privacy protections present in Europe, it may not be a fight that the super-corp wants to pick.
India represents a vast market for its products and the Indian government has made it clear in the past that it is willing to ban or block services it doesn’t approve of. As such Facebook will now have to balance the risk of upsetting India with the risk of creating a precedent where other countries demand that they are also given additional privacy protections.
A spokesperson for Facebook and WhatsApp was not available for immediate comment. ®
Updated to add
"Our aim is to provide transparency and new options available to engage with businesses so they can serve their customers and grow," they said.