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India, the biggest market for WhatsApp, on Tuesday asked the instant messaging platform to withdraw recent controversial changes it made to its terms of service and privacy policy, expressing “grave concern" over implications for Indian citizens.

It also asked the Facebook-owned company, used by as many as 400 million Indians, to respond to some critical queries on its privacy and data policy within a week, people aware of the matter said.

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In a letter to WhatsApp’s global chief executive officer Will Cathcart, the government sought details about the exact categories of data it collects from Indian users, the permission and consent required by different versions of the application, and whether these are also sought from users in other countries.

The government also wants details on:

whether WhatsApp conducts profiling of Indian users on the basis or their usage, and the nature of profiling;

the difference between the privacy policy of WhatsApp in India and other countries;

whether the application captures information about other apps running on the mobile phone of the user; and

the server on which the data of Indian users is transmitted and hosted and whether the data hosted on these servers are encrypted.

“We expect that this sovereign independence of India’s distinct identity and its people must be properly respected and any unilateral changes to the WhatsApp terms of service and privacy would not be fair and acceptable," the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) told WhatsApp, according to a government official who declined to be identified.

“In this context, 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."

“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," said a WhatsApp spokesperson.

WhatsApp updated its terms of service earlier this month, informing users that information from their interactions with business accounts will be shared with Facebook and third parties. Users were told to either agree or discontinue using the platform.

The proposed changes also sparked concerns over privacy, with users moving to alternative platforms Telegram and Signal.

WhatsApp has delayed the introduction of the new privacy policy to 15 May from 8 February. It reiterated that neither it nor Facebook can see personal conversations and that they are safe and protected by end-to-end encryption.

“We’re also going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp. We’ll then go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on 15 May," the company said last week.

The government, however, expressed concern over the way Indian users have not been given the choice to opt-out of data sharing with other Facebook firms. This “all-or-nothing" approach takes away any meaningful choice from Indian users, MeitY said. According to a source in MeitY, the changes in the policy will enable WhatsApp and other Facebook firms to make “invasive and precise inferences" about users.

Prasid Banerjee contributed to the story.

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