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:
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.
As users voiced concerns over the impact of the update on their privacy, the platform’s FAQ page showed the following:
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.
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.
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.
We want to address some rumors and be 100% clear we continue to protect your private messages with end-to-end encryption. pic.twitter.com/6qDnzQ98MP— WhatsApp (@WhatsApp) January 12, 2021
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.
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.