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Home >Opinion >Views >WhatsApp’s game of creeping acquisition

Agree. Tap on it, we must. As befits an app that has taken more Indians than any other across the binary-digit Rubicon, it offers us an either-or choice. We can either read WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy and terms of service, scrolling the screen of a smartphone till our eyes glaze over and cognitive faculties give up, or save ourselves the trauma and simply agree. Of course, there also exists a kind of nuclear option. Withhold consent, and a month-long countdown will begin, after which we would be catapulted into social oblivion online. As the Facebook-owned social media platform has made clear, those who fail to ‘agree’ by 8 February will lose access to it, with little to no chance of holding the company responsible for withdrawal symptoms. Of the 400 million plus users that WhatsApp claims in India, it would be a surprise if more than a tiny fraction were to drop out. This is for two major reasons, which, unlike our choices, are not mutually exclusive: the ‘network effects’ of this app and the low discernibility of its policy tweaks.

The first of those factors was a major force behind WhatsApp’s proliferation. If mostly everyone we need to be in touch with is on a single network, the cost of leaving it is prohibitive. Acceptance of its terms goes by a similar dynamic. If our contacts ‘agree’, why should we not? The second factor blends regular old human inertia with what analysts call mission creep. The policy shift is so subtle and difficult to identify, let alone work out the actual implications of, that delving into its details does not seem worth the exercise. So long as the end-to-end encryption of our messages on WhatsApp offers us a minimal assurance, we are usually okay with the deal. In the larger scheme of things, what the platform has changed is very little. The access to our phone book and transaction data that WhatsApp had will now be shared with its parent, Facebook, for purposes that the company claims would help improve its services. Various other bits and bytes of our service-usage patterns were already being crunched by what has been described as the world’s most powerful megacorp, and it is well known that its internet sprawl has served as a sponge for the absorption of data from its users that can be processed, packaged and hawked in multiple ways. In other words, its policy revision is no cause for alarm, at least not so late in the day.

The update, however, should serve as an occasion to mull over our rights to what we put online. “WhatsApp does not claim ownership of the information that you submit for your WhatsApp account or through our Services," it declares, and then has us yield what we supposedly own, just to keep the app running: “In order to operate and provide our Services, you grant WhatsApp a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, create derivative works of, display, and perform the information (including the content) that you upload, submit, store, send, or receive on or through our Services." Technically, it needs this to deliver messages, but what else it can do with all it gathers is breathtaking in scope and baffling in its legalese. Such apps clearly need regulatory intervention. But not in a way that lets our data be extracted by an even mightier authority in the name of safeguarding us. India’s data protection bill was expected to empower us with control over our own stuff. To an extent, it will. Alas, it also lets the state access too much of it too easily.

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