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The government has ordered WhatsApp to withdraw its controversial new privacy policy, saying the changes undermine the sacrosanct values of privacy, data security and harms rights and interests of Indian citizens.

The ministry of electronics and information technology shot off a letter to WhatsApp on 18 May on the issue, people aware of the development said and warned that necessary steps in accordance with law will be taken if a satisfactory response was not received within seven days.

The ministry has taken a strong position on the matter, and made it clear that it is not just problematic but also “irresponsible" for the messaging platform to leverage its position to impose “unfair" terms and conditions on Indian users, when many depend on WhatsApp to communicate in everyday life, according to the people. In the letter, the ministry has drawn attention of WhatsApp as to how its new privacy policy is a violation of several provisions of the existing Indian laws and rules.

In fulfilment of its sovereign responsibility to protect the rights and interests of Indian citizens, the government will consider various options available to it under laws in India, the people said.

A raging debate had ensued after WhatsApp had said it will update its terms of service and privacy policy around how it processes user data and partners with Facebook to offer integrations across the social media giant’s products.

WhatsApp, which has 530 million users in India as per government data, had faced severe backlash over user concerns that data was being shared with parent company Facebook.

Earlier this week, WhatsApp told the Delhi high court that while its new privacy policy has come into effect from 15 May, it would not start deleting accounts of those users who have not accepted it and would try to encourage them to get on board.

The platform had said there was no universal or uniform time limit after which it will start to delete accounts as each user would be dealt with on case-to-case basis.

In its 18 May communication to WhatsApp, the ministry once again told the messaging platform to withdraw its privacy policy 2021, and also flagged WhatsApp’s ‘discriminatory treatment’ of Indian users vis-a-vis users in Europe.

“As you are doubtlessly aware, many Indian citizens depend on WhatsApp to communicate in everyday life. It is not just problematic but also irresponsible for WhatsApp to leverage this position to impose unfair terms and conditions on Indian users, particularly those that discriminate against Indian users vis-à-vis users in Europe," as per the communication.

The people noted that WhatsApp had earlier claimed that it officially deferred its new privacy policy beyond 15 May 2021. However, the ministry in its communication has asserted that deferral of the privacy policy does not absolve WhatsApp from respecting the values of informational privacy, data security and user choice for Indian users.

WhatsApp on Wednesday said the majority of its users have already accepted the company’s new privacy policy.

“Our goal is to provide information about new options we are building that people will have, to message a business on WhatsApp, in the future. While the majority of users who have received the new terms of service have accepted them, we appreciate some people haven’t had the chance to do so yet. No accounts were deleted on May 15 because of this update and no one in India lost functionality of WhatsApp either. We will follow up with reminders to people over the next several weeks," a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement.

Prasid Banerjee of Mint contributed to the story.

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