WhatsApp forcing users to accept privacy policy: Centre tells Delhi HC


New Delhi: The Centre Thursday told the Delhi High Court that WhatsApp was indulging in anti-user practices by obtaining "trick-consent" from the users for its updated privacy policy to ensure that its entire existing user base is made to accept the terms and conditions before the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill becomes law in India.

"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 said in response to a petition challenging the Facebook-owned messaging app’s 2021 privacy policy.

The government also told the court that WhatsApp has "unleashed its digital prowess" to the "unsuspecting existing users" and would like to force them to accept the privacy policy by flashing such notifications at regular intervals.

"The game plan is very clear, i.e, to transfer the entire existing user base committed to updated 2021 privacy policy before the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill becomes law," the government said.

The central government also urged the court to direct the messaging platform to desist from pushing notifications onto its existing users with regard to the new privacy policy.

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

However, WhatsApp said it will not limit the functionality of the messaging app for users not agreeing to its new privacy policy, but will continue to send reminders about the update.

WhatsApp said its recent policy update does not change the privacy of people's personal messages, and it has already written to the government seeking to assure them that the privacy of users remains its highest priority.

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

A raging debate had ensued earlier this year after WhatsApp said it will update its terms of service and privacy policy around how it processes user data and partners with Facebook to offer integrations across the social media giant's products.

The Facebook-owned company has insisted that its contentious privacy policy 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, the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson further noted that the recent update does not change the privacy of people's personal messages and that its purpose is to provide additional information about how people can interact with businesses if they choose to do so.

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, the spokesperson said.

WhatsApp - which has 53 crore users in India as per the government data - had faced severe backlash over user concerns that data was being shared with parent company Facebook.

Interestingly, the new rules for social media companies have also come into effect from the last month that mandate large platforms like Facebook and Twitter to undertake greater due diligence and make these digital platforms more accountable and responsible for the content hosted by them.

The rules also require significant social media intermediaries - providing services primarily in the nature of messaging - to enable identification of the "first originator" of the information that undermines the sovereignty of India, the security of the state, or public order. This could have major ramifications for players like Twitter and WhatsApp.

The new IT rules require significant social media intermediaries - those with other 50 lakh users - to appoint a grievance officer, nodal officer and a chief compliance officer. These personnel are required to be resident in India.

Under the new rules, social media companies will have to take down flagged content within 36 hours, and remove within 24 hours content that is flagged for nudity, pornography etc. The Centre had said the new rules are designed to prevent abuse and misuse of platforms, and offer users a robust forum for grievance redressal.

Non-compliance with the rules would result in these platforms losing their intermediary status that provides them immunity from liabilities over any third-party data hosted by them. In other words, they could be liable for criminal action in case of complaints.

(With PTI inputs)

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