WhatsApp privacy policy update: here’s what’s up

WhatsApp privacy policy update: here’s what’s up
Photo Credit: Reuters

Messaging platform WhatsApp on Wednesday reiterated that the recently proposed privacy-related policy update would not affect personal conversations.  

However, the company is yet to respond to the Ministry Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY), which on Tuesday reportedly wrote to WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart, asking the Facebook-owned messaging platform to withdraw the update, as the “unilateral changes are not fair and (un)acceptable”. 

The development follows weeks-long controversy involving a privacy-related update on the messaging platform, which was notified to Indian users in the first week of January 2021. The update, in basic terms, would allow WhatsApp to share specific user data with parent company Facebook. 


Here’s a look at how the controversy unfolded and its ripple effects:

January 4

Over 2 billion WhatsApp users worldwide -- with half a billion of them in India -- received an in-app notification, asking them to accept the app’s new terms and conditions. The update would allow the platform to share user account information with the Facebook group companies to provide, improve, customize, support and market its services.


The platform said the changes would be effective from February 8, 2021, post which only users that accepted the update could continue using the service. “You can also visit the Help Center if you prefer to delete your account,” the alert showed.

January 6-7 

As users voiced concerns over the impact of the update on their privacy, the platform’s FAQ page showed the following:


“The information we share with the other Facebook Companies includes your account registration information (such as your phone number), transaction data, service-related information, information on how you interact with others (including businesses) when using our services, mobile device information, your IP address, and may include other information identified in the Privacy Policy section entitled ‘Information We Collect’ or obtained upon notice to you or based on your consent.” 

The section mentions location data, cookies, status information, payments data and undelivered messages, among others.

The panic over privacy breach, aided by rumours, also triggered a mass migration to WhatsApp’s rival platforms, such as Telegram and Signal. Technology bigwigs, including Tesla CEO Elon Musk, American whistleblower Edward Snowden, Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Mahindra group chairman Anand Mahindra, and PhonePe CEO Sameer Nigam, fuelled the call to move away from WhatsApp.


January 9

In light of growing criticism and confusion, WhatsApp head Cathcart tweeted that the policy update was related to optional business features on WhatsApp. Private messages and calls on the platform were end-to-end encrypted and could not be accessed by WhatsApp or Facebook, he said.

January 12


Following Cathcart’s statement, the company released a set of FAQs to explain the update and address its users’ concerns.

The company does not keep a log of people users call or message on WhatsApp, nor does it share location or contact information with Facebook or other firms, it said. 

January 14


Chaitanya Rohilla, a Delhi-based advocate, filed a petition challenging the privacy policy update in the Delhi High Court. In the plea, the petitioner argued that the planned policy change gives WhatsApp a 360-degree profile into a person’s online activity, violating the right to privacy and risking national security by sharing, transmitting and storing user data in a foreign country. 

In addition to this, an official source cited by the Times of India, said that the government was keeping an eye on the developments and collecting details on the policy update, including the difference in applicability in the EU and India. 

Around the same time, Italy’s Data Protection Authority also said that it had alerted the European Data Protection Board over the lack of clarity around the new terms, which appeared to keep WhatsApp users from expressing a free and aware will.

January 15

WhatsApp announced that it will delay the implementation of the privacy policy update by three months to May 15, 2021. The window, it said, would be used to clear all misinformation around the update and help people make an informed decision.  

January 16

The Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) filed a petition in the Supreme Court, seeking withdrawal of the privacy policy update. The trader body highlighted the differences between WhatsApp’s approach in EU and India and said that the change encroaches on various fundamental rights of citizens granted by the Constitution of India.

January 18

In a hearing on the writ petition filed by advocate Rohilla, a single judge bench comprising justice Sanjeev Sachdeva of the Delhi High Court said that accepting the updated privacy policy was voluntary, and one could always choose a different messaging platform if they did not want to accept the terms and conditions. “It is a private app, don’t join it,” justice Sachdeva said.

January 19

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology reportedly wrote to CEO Cathcart, demanding a roll back of the privacy policy changes. In the strongly worded letter, the government asked WhatsApp to respect the privacy and data security of Indians, and objected to the all-or-nothing approach of rolling out the change as well as the differential policies for EU and India, as per media reports.

January 20

A day after MeitY's letter, a WhatsApp spokesperson reiterated to the media that the update does not expand the company's ability to share data with Facebook, and that personal chats will be protected by end-to-end encryption. The aim of the policy change, it said, was to provide transparency and offer new engagement options to help businesses grow.  

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