Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Instant messaging app WhatsApp has been in a pickle in India ever since it announced its new privacy policy, and it seems to be getting into a deeper hole by the day. On Friday, its woes only increased when the federal government of India asked the Delhi High Court to restrain WhatsApp from implementing its new privacy policy and terms of service. The Indian government had also asked the Facebook-owned messaging platform to review the new proposed privacy policy changes, Minister of State for IT and Communications Sanjay Dhotre informed the Lok Sabha on Wednesday.

A bench of Chief Justice DN Patel and Justice Jasmeet Singh postponed the matter for another hearing on April 20. The court is set to hear the case again on April 28.

Dhotre stated, “Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) took cognizance of the WhatsApp announcement of its new Privacy Policy stated to be applicable to Indian users. To safeguard the interest of Indian users, Meity has asked WhatsApp to review the proposed privacy policy changes and also to explain the rationale of the same.”

In its affidavit, the Centre said, “It is humbly prayed that in view of the above submissions, the Respondent No. 2 (WhatsApp) may be restrained from implementing its new privacy policy and terms of service dated January 4, 2021, from February 8, 2021, or any subsequent date pending adjudication by this court.”

This move comes after the Supreme Court had informed Facebook and WhatsApp that it would intervene if necessary to protect the privacy of the citizens. The new privacy policy will likely take effect from May 15, and this announcement has intensified the pressure on WhatsApp.

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) filed an affidavit before the High Court stating that WhatsApp’s new privacy policy was not in tune with the IT (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules, 2011.

Meity said that WhatsApp’s new privacy policy failed to specify the types of sensitive personal data that were being collected. “Crucially there is no distinction between personal data or sensitive personal data which is being collected,” the Ministry said, apart from WhatsApp failing to notify users on details of the collection of sensitive personal information. Additionally, it does not guarantee that third parties getting user data would maintain confidentiality.

“The privacy policy mentions the involvement of third-party service providers who may have access to the data. However, the names of these service providers and other associated details have not been provided,” it said.

Ever since the policy was made public, there had been concerns WhatsApp planned to share data with its parent company Facebook leading to various allegations on the platform. WhatsApp strictly maintained its stand that neither Facebook nor WhatsApp could see private messages on WhatsApp, which were end-to-end encrypted. While the messaging service had introduced a deadline of January 8 initially, it was pushed back following the tremendous backlash.

The petitioners had said that the new privacy policy indicated the “fissures” in Indian data protection and privacy laws. Under the new policy, users could either accept it or exit the app, but they cannot opt not to share their data with other Facebook-owned or third-party apps. Meity, earlier, had expressed concern over the altered privacy policy and had asked WhatsApp to withdraw the changes that have implications for the freedom of choice for Indian users.

The company had been criticized strongly by the government earlier as well, for using differential treatment regarding privacy among Indian and European users – while European users had the option to accept or reject the new privacy policy and retain access to the app, Indian users would be denied access if they rejected the new policy.

WhatsApp is also facing trouble over the nationwide rollout of its payment service, contending with guidelines that could require it to break its encryption to identify originators of unlawful messages on its platform.