Facebook challenged on WhatsApp privacy policy by two Indian students

Karmanya Singh Sareen and Shreya Sethi filed a PIL in the Delhi high court asking for a rollback of recent policy updates by the Facebook-owned WhatsApp


WhatsApp revised its privacy policy to share data with Facebook and allow targeted ads and direct messages from businesses. Photo: AP
WhatsApp revised its privacy policy to share data with Facebook and allow targeted ads and direct messages from businesses. Photo: AP

Bangalore/New Delhi: Two Indian students are mounting a legal challenge to Facebook Inc., seeking to wind back changes to WhatsApp’s privacy policy that they say threatens the rights of millions of users.

Karmanya Singh Sareen and Shreya Sethi filed a public-interest litigation, akin to a class action, in the Delhi high court asking for a rollback of recent policy updates by the Facebook-owned messaging service. They asked the court to order the government to frame guidelines for messaging apps so that user privacy isn’t compromised.

A two-judge bench examining the petition issued notices to WhatsApp, Facebook, the government and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) asking them to document their stand for the court. The case is due to come up later this week.

WhatsApp revised its privacy policy to share data with Facebook and allow targeted ads and direct messages from businesses. The Indian challenge follows similar hurdles around the world, with the European Union and the US Federal Trade Commission examining whether users have been wronged and a German consumer group threatening to sue the company.

WhatsApp said the changes announced last month were compliant with the law and it was giving users time to react, even letting them turn off data sharing with Facebook. The company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.

In a brief hearing in the court last week, WhatsApp said it doesn’t intend to share user content with Facebook except user names and phone numbers. The company said use of the app is voluntary.

Facebook has a history of lawsuits over user privacy and advertising. In a 2011 settlement with the FTC, the company agreed that it would always ask users for permission before making changes to its privacy practices. The FTC is looking into whether WhatsApp’s recent changes violated that agreement.

A lot is at stake for Facebook in India, where it has close to 150 million users, its biggest base outside the US Research firm eMarketer said India would soon have the world’s largest Facebook population. WhatsApp has over 70 million users in India, according to a SimilarWeb report in May.

When Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014, users worried that it would change the nature of the app, which had been free of advertising. WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum said at the time that nothing would change in terms of privacy for users.

In a recent blog post about the changes, WhatsApp told users their encrypted messages would stay private and that no one else can read them.

“Not WhatsApp, not Facebook, nor anyone else. We won’t post or share your WhatsApp number with others, including on Facebook, and we still won’t sell, share, or give your phone number to advertisers,” the company said.

Singh, a 19-year-old engineering student, and Sethi, 22, said in their petition that the changes compromise the security, safety and privacy of data that belongs to users.

They said the term “user consent” is meaningless in India as most users aren’t equipped to read or comprehend the consequences of the privacy policy changes. WhatsApp attracted a substantial user base through its assurance of complete privacy and its recent changes were a breach of users’ trust, they said. Bloomberg

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