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Indian privacy case against WhatsApp gains momentum

A privacy lawsuit against WhatsApp in India over its new data sharing policy has got momentum with the country’s top court seeking responses from Facebook, WhatsApp and the federal government.

The privacy policy of WhatsApp at launch in 2010 did not allow sharing of user data with any other party, and after Facebook announced its acquisition of the messaging app in 2014, it was “publicly announced and acknowledged” by WhatsApp that the privacy policy would not change, according to the petition filed by Indian users of WhatsApp.

WhatsApp sparked off a furore last year when it said it would be sharing some account information of users with Facebook and its companies, including the mobile phone numbers they verified when they registered with WhatsApp. The sharing of information will enable users to see better friend suggestions and more relevant ads on Facebook, it added.

Facebook misled European Union regulators at the time of seeking permission for its takeover of WhatsApp, European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager said in December. Privacy groups in the U.S. have complained to the Federal Trade Commission that the changes in WhatsApp’s terms and privacy policy break its previous promise that user data collected would not be used or disclosed for marketing purposes.

The company has given users an opt-out facility but even if users do not accept, “the Facebook family of companies will still receive and use this information for other purposes such as improving infrastructure and delivery systems, understanding how our services or theirs are used, securing systems, and fighting spam, abuse, or infringement activities.”

The Delhi High Court had earlier ordered that WhatsApp should remove from its servers data of users who had deleted the messaging app before Sept. 25, 2016. The court also ordered that the Indian government should look into the feasibility of setting up a regulatory framework for messaging apps like WhatsApp, according to court records published by legal site Live Law.

The users of WhatsApp state that an Internet service provider only owns the medium and not the details and data of its users, and claim it is the responsibility of the state to guarantee and protect the private and personal data. They have asked the Supreme Court to bring messaging apps under a regulatory framework similar to rules governing telecommunications services. The users also want the option to continue under the earlier privacy policy.

The procedure adopted by WhatsApp to seek user consent for the new rules was a “façade” more so in India where many users of the app cannot read or would not comprehend the privacy policy, according to the petition. The appeal filed in the Supreme Court has asked WhatsApp to stop sharing user data with Facebook until the petition has been heard and disposed off. It has also asked that the WhatsApp service should not be discontinued by Facebook during the period.

Facebook did not immediately comment on the developments in the Supreme Court in the case.

An issue that is expected to figure in the court is that WhatsApp is a free service to which the lawyer for the users has argued that with 155 million users in the country, it has become a public utility like telephone calls, which cannot be intercepted without the permission of the government, according to reports.

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