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How The U.K. Got A Better Deal From Facebook Than India Did

by Prasad Krishna last modified Nov 18, 2016 01:56 AM
The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and India’s Karmanya Sareen shared a similar concern – how messenger application WhatsApp’s decision to share user data with parent Facebook is a violation of the promise of privacy.

The blog post by Payaswini Upadhyay was published in Bloomberg Quint on November 17, 2016. Sunil Abraham was quoted.

Last week, Facebook agreed to address the concerns of the ICO; in India, it didn’t have to.

WhatsApp: New Privacy Policy

In August 2016, WhatsApp issued a revised privacy policy that allowed it to share user information with parent company Facebook. Any user who didn’t want her information to be shared with Facebook had a 30-day period to opt out of the policy. Opting out meant that a user’s account information would not be shared with Facebook to improve ads and product experiences. But, there was a caveat.

The Facebook family of companies will still receive and use this information for other purposes such as improving infrastructure and delivery systems, understanding how our services or theirs are used, securing systems, and fighting spam, abuse, or infringement activities.
WhatsApp Support Team statement on its website

Facebook’s Commitment To ICO

The ICO decided to delve deeper into what Facebook intended to do with the WhatsApp user data. Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner, ICO stated in her blog that users haven’t been given enough information about what Facebook plans to do with the information, and WhatsApp hasn’t got valid consent from users to share the information.

I also believe users should be given ongoing control over how their information is used, not just a 30-day window.
Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner, ICO

Denham further elaborated ICO’s stand - that it’s important users have control over their personal information, even if services don’t charge them a fee.

We’ve set out the law clearly to Facebook, and we’re pleased that they’ve agreed to pause using data from U.K. WhatsApp users for advertisements or product improvement purposes.
Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner, ICO

The ICO has now asked Facebook and WhatsApp to sign an undertaking committing to better explaining to users how their data will be used, and to giving users ongoing control over that information. Additionally, the ICO also wants WhatsApp to give users an unambiguous choice before Facebook starts using that information and for them to be given the opportunity to change that decision at any point in the future. Facebook and WhatsApp are yet to agree to this, Denham stated.

If Facebook starts using the data without valid consent, it may face enforcement action from my office.
Elizabeth Denham, Information Commissioner, ICO

In the U.K., protections in the European Data Protection Directive have been incorporated into local law via the Data Protection Act 1998. The ICO is both the privacy regulator and the transparency (right to information) regulator, Sunil Abraham, executive director at the Centre for Internet and Society pointed out. The regulator can issue enforcement notices and also fine errant actors in the market place, he said.

This is a regulator with expertise, experience and teeth. Come May 25, 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation will come into force and this will give more comprehensive powers to the regulator to investigate and remedy cases like this. The regulator will take each principle from the Directive or Regulation and examine Facebook’s actions comprehensively before deciding on a response.
Sunil Abraham, Executive Director, Centre for Internet and Society

For example, if the regulator determines that the principle of choice and consent has not been complied with, it can force Facebook to reverse its decisions and provide greater transparency and clearer choices, Abraham added.

Karmanya Sareen’s Grievance

Back home in India, just two months ago, Karmanya Sareen, a WhatsApp user, argued before the Delhi High Court against the company’s new privacy policy. The argument was that WhatsApp’s August 2016 notice to its users about the proposed change in the privacy policy violated the fundamental rights of users under Article 21 of the Constitution. Article 21 promises protection of life and personal liberty.

Proposed change in the privacy policy of WhatsApp would result in altering/changing the most valuable, basic and essential feature of WhatsApp i.e. the complete protection provided to the privacy of details and data of its users.
Karmanya Sareen vs Union of India

The Delhi High Court struck down the Article 21 argument saying that the Supreme Court was still deliberating over including right to privacy as a fundamental right. It also pointed to WhatsApp’s 2012 Privacy Policy that allowed the company to transfer user information in case of an acquisition or merger with a third party. The 2012 policy also allowed WhatsApp to change the terms periodically.

Consequently, the Delhi High Court held that it is not open to the users now to contend that WhatsApp should be compelled to continue the same terms of service. However, the court gave WhatsApp two directions to protect users.

  • WhatsApp to delete from its servers and not share with Facebook or its group companies any information belonging to users who delete their account.
  • Users who continue to be on WhatsApp, their existing information up to September 25, 2016 cannot be shared with Facebook or any of its group companies.

Did The Delhi High Court Go Easy On Facebook And WhatsApp?

Apar Gupta, an advocate specializing in information technology, points out that the directions given by the Delhi High Court to WhatsApp did not contemplate any additional protection to a user than what was already provided by WhatsApp.

The Delhi Court essentially reproduced WhatsApp’s privacy policy. It did not compel or provide any additional safeguard.
Apar Gupta, Lawyer

Apar attributes this to the absence of a regulatory framework.

The lack of substantive safeguard and enforcement framework in India led to the Delhi High Court upholding WhatsApp’s new privacy policy.
Apar Gupta, Lawyer

Abraham added that the court did not examine the privacy policy from the perspective of data protection principles as would have been the case in EU or any other jurisdictions with a proper data protection law.

The court too admitted this in its order that there existed a regulatory vacuum in India and asked TRAI to look into the matter. Facebook did not respond to BloombergQuint’s query on whether it would implement its U.K. commitments in India as well.