The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) asked WhatsApp to clarify issues related to its “privacy and data transfer and sharing policies, and general business practices” within seven days.
In an email addressed to WhatsApp’s global head Will Cathcart on Monday, the ministry said the proposed policy changes “will have a disproportionate impact on the Indian citizens”, given that India was WhatsApp’s largest user base with over 400 million of them.
The ministry has asked WhatsApp to answer 14 questions related to the proposed update within seven days of the email.
WhatsApp had earlier said that its proposed policy update “does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. The changes are related to optional business features on WhatsApp, and provide further transparency about how we collect and use data”.
The messaging company started rolling out the update in December, asking users to accept by February 8 or lose access to the service.
While the firm has clarified that messages and private conversations remain private and encrypted, concerns about privacy violations remain among users, many of whom are moving to other messaging apps like Signal and Telegram. It has also deferred introducing the policy from February 8 to May 15 after facing a backlash.
Calling out the company’s “all-or-nothing” approach, taking away any meaningful choice from Indian users, the ministry outlined several concerns regarding the proposed policy update.
It added that “the proposed changes raise grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens. Therefore, you are called upon to withdraw the proposed changes. Further, you are urged to reconsider your approach to respect the informational privacy, freedom of choice and data security of Indian citizens”.
In addition to general questions around the specific services provided by WhatsApp in India, its data-sharing practices, and permissions, the ministry has asked whether WhatsApp conducts profiling its Indian users, whether permissions sought in other geographical locations are different from those in India, which server hosts Indian WhatsApp users’ data, and so on.
On Tuesday, Ravi Shankar Prasad, minister of electronics and IT, said at an event that digital platforms were free to do business in India as long as they did not look at Indians’ personal communication.
“Be it WhatsApp, be it Facebook, be it any digital platform, you are free to do business in India, but do it in a manner without infringing upon the rights of Indians who operate them,” Prasad said at the inaugural session of the India Digital Summit (IDS), organised by the Internet and Mobile Association of India.
Speaking to Anant Goenka, executive director, Indian Express, in a video conference, Prasad said the “sanctity of personal communication needs to be maintained”.
When asked if he was still on WhatsApp, Prasad said he wasn’t, and reiterated that conversations like a doctor talking to patients or a lawyer talking to clients were privileged communication, and shouldn’t be available for anyone else to see.
“We wish to reinforce that this update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook. Our aim is to provide transparency and new options available to engage with businesses so they can serve their customers and grow. WhatsApp will always protect personal messages with end-to-end encryption so that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see them. We are working to address misinformation and remain available to answer any questions,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said.