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PDP Bill is coming: WhatsApp Privacy Policy analysis

Posted by Pallavi Bedi & Shweta Reddy at Jan 18, 2021 12:00 AM |
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WhatsApp started off the new year with changes to its privacy policy that has several implications for data protection and the digital governance ecosystem at large. This post is the first in a series by CIS unpacking the various implications of the policy.


On January 4, 2021, WhatsApp announced a revised privacy policy. The announcement was through an in-app notification. Users were asked to agree to the policy by February 8, else they will lose access to their accounts. The announcement triggered a backlash, globally and in India and it led to millions of users in India migrating to other messaging platforms. In light of the backlash, WhatsApp had on January 15 announced that it will delay rolling out the new policy to May 15, 2021. 

 It is important to note that many users have also commented that the new explicit terms of mandatory data sharing with Facebook and the extent of metadata collection haven’t changed drastically from WhatsApp’s existing operations. In 2016, WhatsApp had revised its privacy policy to enable data sharing with Facebook. Users were provided 30 days to opt out of such data sharing.  However, the option to opt out was not provided to users who joined the service after September 25, 2016 or who failed to exercise the opt-out option. The changes in the policy were challenged in the Delhi High Court.  The High Court (i) directed WhatsApp to delete the complete information of users who exercised the option to opt out before September 25, 2016; and (ii) with respect to users who did not exercise the opt-out option, WhatsApp was directed to not share the information of users collected until September 25, 2016 with Facebook. The matter is currently pending before the Supreme Court.  

The change in people’s reactions to the data processing from 2016 can partly be attributed to the change in the users perception of privacy and personal data protection. Conversations around privacy and data protection and harms arising out of unauthorized data collection are much more prevalent. What has also irked a large number of users is the difference between the privacy policy applicable to the European Region and the policy applicable to the rest of the world; There is a disparity in the two policies regarding the rights of the users in relation to sharing of data with Facebook Companies(Facebook payments inc, Facebook Payments International Limited, Onavo, Facebook technologies LLC, Facebook Technologies Ireland limited, WhatsApp inc.  WhatsApp Ireland Limited and Crowdtangle) due to the application of the General Data Protection Regulation. 

Currently, Indian users have a fundamental right to privacy and an overarching data protection framework is set to be tabled in the Parliament soon. The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, being deliberated by the Joint Parliamentary Committee, is expected to provide comprehensive requirements for authorized collection and management of personal data. The proposed Bill, despite several shortcomings, does offer significantly more protection than the current framework consisting of S. 43A of Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Information Technology (Reasonable Security practices and procedures and sensitive personal data or Information) Rules, 2011. This blogpost will examine the viability of the revised privacy policy of WhatsApp if the proposed bill is enacted in the currently available public version of the Bill. In the subsequent posts we will analyse the effect of the revised privacy policy on the pending litigation. 

Privacy notice

Section 7 of the proposed bill puts an obligation on the data fiduciary to provide a privacy notice, i.e. a document containing granular details of the processing of personal data to the data principals. The details must be provided in a manner that is clear, concise and easily comprehensible to a reasonable person. The notice should also be provided in multiple languages where necessary and practicable. The importance of a clear and concise policy has been highlighted in the Justice Srikrishna Report on Data Protection. However, there is no guidance from the Indian authorities on what it constitutes. Guidance from the Article 29 working party in the EU suggests that the policy must be presented in a manner that avoids information fatigue. In the digital context, it has been recommended that presenting a policy in a layered format enhances readability. The guidance also suggests that policy should avoid reliance on complex sentences and abstract terms to convey the details of the processing operations. The revised privacy policy of WhatsApp cannot be termed a clear and concise policy.  The purely text-based policy, containing around 3800 words, is not presented in a layered format resulting in shockingly low readability for the amount and type of personal data collection the policy is attempting to convey. In addition to improper design and structure, the policy contains vague language providing an average user a hazy understanding of the extent of data processing and can leave room for different interpretations. The earlier version of the policy also uses similar language and structure to convey details regarding the processing and doesn’t provide transparent details regarding its data sharing with Facebook. Relying on a similar format as its earlier versions without revising it based on global discussions around the best methods seems to be an opportunity lost to remedy the privacy policy. The structure, form and language of the policy will have to be revised if the Bill is enacted in its current form and the policy will also have to be provided in multiple languages. 

Bundled consent

According to its policy, WhatsApp relies on the consent of the user for the purpose of providing messaging and communication services, sharing information with third party service providers that help WhatsApp “operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market” their Services, and sharing information with other Facebook companies for “providing integrations with Facebook Company products” to name a few.  It is important to verify if the consent being obtained is valid according to the standard set by the proposed framework.

For consent to be valid under the proposed framework (Section 11(4)) , the provision and quality of services provided should not be linked to consenting to processing of personal data that is not directly necessary for that purpose. In WhatsApp’s case, the primary purpose of processing is to provide messaging and communication services on that particular platform. Neither sharing personal data with third party service providers for better marketing of their services on other platforms nor sharing it with Facebook company of products for better integration of services is incidental to the primary purpose of processing. The bundling of consent results in forcing individuals to either accept processing of personal data for all of the purposes outlined or lose the services altogether resulting in an invalid consent. An explicit opt-in mechanism for all those processing operations that are not compatible with the primary purpose of processing will have to be provided to the Indian users if the Bill is enacted in its current form and consent is being relied on as the lawful ground of processing.

Data sharing with Facebook

WhatsApp’s policy on sharing of information with Facebook has garnered a significant amount of attention and has also raised privacy concerns amongst WhatsApp users in non-European countries. This is because the policy applicable to non- European countries now does not provide the user option to opt out from sharing the information if the user wants to continue using and operating WhatsApp. The policy under the heading ‘How we work with other Facebook Companies’ states that “As part of the Facebook Companies, WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information (see here) with, the other Facebook Companies. We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services and their offerings, including the Facebook Company Products.” The information that may be shared by WhatsApp with Facebook Companies includes; (i) users phone number; (ii) transaction data; (iii) service-related information, (iv) information on how the users interact with others (including businesses); (v) mobile device information; (vi) the user’s IP address; and (vii) and any other data covered by the privacy policy. All this information/data will fall within the ambit of personal data in terms of the current version of the Bill and therefore WhatsApp would have to comply with the obligations put on it under the Bill for it to be able to share personal data with other data fiduciaries including Facebook Companies.

As noted earlier, it is pertinent to note that the privacy policy is not the same globally. As per the privacy policy applicable to  Europe, WhatsApp states that any information that it shares with Facebook Companies is to be used on WhatsApp’s behalf and in accordance with its instructions. Any such information cannot be used for the Facebook Companies own purposes. This statement is not reflected in the privacy policy applicable to non European countries. Facebook has in a statement stated that “For the avoidance of any doubt, it is still the case that WhatsApp does not share European region WhatsApp user data with Facebook for the purpose of Facebook using this data to improve its products or advertisements”

Data sharing with other third party service providers

It is also important to note that sharing of information is not limited to Facebook Companies, but also extends to other third party service providers. However, apart from a vaguely drafted statement stating that WhatsApp works with third party service providers as well as other Facebook Companies to help it to “operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services”, the privacy policy is silent and does not provide any insight or clear information on (a) the nature of these third party entities; (b) extent of information shared with such third party entities.  Further, even though the policy provides a link to the other Facebook Companies (Facebook Payments Inc, Facebook International Limited, Onavo CrowdTangle) that it works with; there is again no clarity as to what are the specific services provided by these companies.

One of the rights provided to a data principal under Section 17 (3) and Section 7 (1)(g) of the current version of the Bill, is the right to be informed and the consent to be obtained from the data principal about the individuals or entities with whom personal data may be shared. The data principal also has the right to be informed about and given access to the categories of personal data shared with the other data fiduciaries. However, the policy as it stands on date is silent about both the details of the third parties service providers as well as the categories of personal data that could be shared with them.

Metadata collection and data minimisation

The details on usage and log information in the previous version of the policy were rather vague as a result of which the extent of data collection was difficult to ascertain. The revised version indicates that WhatsApp’s metadata collection went further than most of the other popular messaging applications and the data being collected was linked back to the user and device identity. The principle of data minimisation (Section 6 of the proposed framework) limits the collection of personal data to that which is necessary for the purpose of processing. The compelling reasons that justify the metadata collection for the primary purpose of messaging and communication are so far unclear. The metadata collection section is similar in the privacy policy for the EU region and on the face of it doesn’t look GDPR compliant as well. Collection of those categories of personal data that are not necessary for processing of the primary purpose will need to be discontinued if the Bill is enacted in its current form.

Data Principal rights

The difference between the protection afforded to Indian resident users and European resident users is highlighted in the rights accorded to the data principal under the two privacy policies. The European privacy policy has a section dedicated to how users can exercise their rights and specifies that users have the right to access, rectify, port, and erase their information, as well as the right to restrict and object to certain processing of their information. These rights are a reflection of the protection afforded to data principles under the GDPR.  As per the current version of the Bill, the data principal will have the right to  (i) confirmation and access (Section 17); (ii) correction and erasure (Section 18); and (iii) data portability (Section 19). If the current version of the Bill is enacted, then WhatsApp will be required to amend its privacy policy regarding its applicability to India and incorporate the rights of data accorded to the data principal .

Grievance redressal 

The European Region privacy policy specifies the entity within WhatsApp responsible for addressing the complaints of the users and it further also informs the user that they have the right to approach the Irish Data Protection Commission, or any other competent data protection supervisory authority. None of these provisions are specified in the Non-European Region privacy policy.  The current version of the PDP Bill places an obligation on the data fiduciary to establish an effective grievance redressal mechanism (Section 32(1)) and to inform the data principal about their right to approach the Data Protection Authority (which is proposed to be established under the PDP Bill) (Section 7(k)). Additional details regarding the same will have to be provided if the Bill is enacted in its current form. 

Clarifications from WhatsApp 

On January 13, 2021, WhatsApp published a blog stating that the changes to the privacy policy will not affect users who use the platform messaging with friends and family,  the changes will only apply to users who use the platform to communicate with business accounts. As per WhatsApp messages to business accounts on WhatsApp can be shared with third-party service providers, which may include Facebook itself.  As per the blog, “But whether you communicate with a business by phone, email, or WhatsApp, it can see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook.” It is important to note that we recognise that the content of the messages and the call remains encrypted, however, the concern arises from the collection and use of ‘metadata.’ 

WhatsApp’s repeated assurances and clarifications asserting their commitment to data privacy falls short. Their insistence that their chats still use end to end encryption and that only interactions with WhatsApp Business will be shared with Facebook indicates ignorance with regard to the different contours of informational privacy. The expectations of privacy that individuals have over their personal data is linked to the extent of control they have over disclosure of such data. The mandatory metadata collection and lack of opt out clauses for data sharing for marketing purposes results in a mere illusion of control through its façade consent collecting process.

For the most part, the proposed framework should provide us the same level of protection offered to EU users of WhatsApp regarding some of the key contentions highlighted above. However, additional data principal rights such as the right to object and right to restrict processing will give additional protections to the data principal in case of data processing for marketing purposes. The uproar over the data collection practices of WhatsApp have cemented the immediate need for an effective data protection legislation in the country. The final draft of the Bill with 89 new amendments is expected to be released soon. Considering the renewed apprehensions regarding unwarranted processing of personal data, we can only hope that the amendments have taken into consideration the feedback and comments provided by relevant stakeholders. 

(This post was edited and reviewed by Amber Sinha, Arindrajit Basu and Aman Nair)

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