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What’s up with WhatsApp’s privacy policy?5 min read

January 21, 2021 4 min read


What’s up with WhatsApp’s privacy policy?5 min read

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Earlier this January, something weird happened in the world of technology. WhatsApp, which is owned by social media giant Faebook, suddenly decided that they need to take explicit permission from their users for giving away their metadata and other information to Facebook, with a “take it or leave it” option.

What? Is Whatsapp going to sell my data?

Well, yes and no. Facebook has been talking for a long time about using data from WhatsApp to better target their advertisements on the Facebook platform. Do you remember our article about Apple’s privacy policy that upset Facebook recently? Read it here to know more about how Facebook makes money.

So, getting back, how can a company better target ads for you? By getting more information about your preferences, likes, income, spending patterns (yes, pocket money included!), and what kind of information you are consuming in your WhatsApp chats!

Illustration: Times of India

Before you get angry and delete that app from your phone, hear them out. Facebook argues that if you are not paying for the service that WhatsApp provides, then paying them by giving them access to your data will help them monetize and earn more.

This sounds perfectly reasonable. What’s the problem?

Well, here it is. What’sApp is essentially a messaging platform. And all of us use it to have one-on-one conversations with our friends, family, and peers. Imagine having a conversation about going to a restaurant and finding those ads pop up on Facebook immediately after! That’s essentially why everyone’s upset with Facebook’s decision.

In fact, people have had the annoying experiences of speaking about a certain item and then having ads about pop up on Facebook and Instagram. We’ve discussed this issue in our earlier article, with some information about how Facebook tracks users across its partner websites and uses that to target ads on their newsfeed.

So, what does this mean?

It is the end of privacy in the truest sense possible. This may not be much of an issue for countries with large populations like India, but in most parts of the world, this would not be acceptable as Privacy is linked closely to the dignity of life (which is also enshrined in our own Constitution).

Hence, all over the world, people are taking WhatsApp’s ‘Take it or Leave it’ offer seriously, and leaving the chatting platform in big numbers!

If people are leaving, how will Facebook make any money at all?

So, here’s the thing. Facebook did not expect that so many people would leave immediately. Spooked by this exodus, Facebook has backtracked it’s earlier stand!

So, now, the policy changed into one that said privacy consent requirement is only for WhatsApp with Business and not the regular WhatsApp. Also, it said that that posts will continue to be end-to-end encrypted. This means that neither messages to your friends or private groups will be used for ad personalization. Only your conversations with businesses will be used for targeting Facebook ads! That’s a win for privacy advocates everywhere.

But why did Facebook not expect this? Aren’t there other products similar to WhatsApp?

There are. But due to an interesting phenomenon called the Network Effect, Facebook thought it would be hard for people to leave the service. Network effect implies that if everyone else is already part of that network, then the value of that network is extremely high and you cannot afford to leave it. If your friends are already using WhatsApp, then you will have to persuade each one of them to move to whatever social platform you plan to move to in order to stay connected. That is an almost impossible ask. And that is why many people will still find it difficult to discontinue use of social platforms like WhatsApp.

How Facebook grows

Wait, hold your horses. Shouldn’t the government step in and protect its citizens from such violations?

In a democracy, there is little that the government can do based on the current regulations. The Personal Data Privacy Act essentially says that if you give consent to share your data, then there is nothing illegal that the company is doing and the government cannot do anything about it. If you do not want to give consent to share your data, then you are free to quit WhatsApp. The current regulations do not factor in the Network Effect and the unfair trade practices emerging from it.

Is there anything good in this world?

No need to get so existential! Yes, there is good in the world. Many software developers are innovating around platforms that have decentralized cryptographic schemes where no one server or business has access to all the personal data. These run like the popular cryptocurrency, Bitcoin where the identity of the user and their chats are encrypted across multiple servers. With this approach, there can be no monopolization of personal information by a corporate entity!

See? Where there is a problem, there is always a solution.

Think with Owliver:

  1. Why is giving away your personal data a risk? What can go wrong?
  2. What other options can you use to make sure you and your data are private and safe?
  3. Is Facebook the only company doing this? If not, who else is benefiting from selling user data?

(Portions of this article have been sourced from this article by Dr Jaijit Bhattacharya for Outlook Magazine. Jaljit is the President of Centre for Digital Economy Policy Research and lives in Delhi.)