On February 20, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion (approximately Rs. 1,16,000 crore). Both Facebook (FB) and WhatsApp are popular in India with 93 million and 40 million users respectively and since the deal was signed, discussions have started on the impact of this transaction on the Indian consumers.
Concerns are now being raised on the vexed issues of privacy and user-data protection. At the heart of such concerns is that Facebook has the opposite policy that of WhatsApp on user data. While WhatsApp does not store messages sent by its users or the metadata associated with such transmissions, but only collects phone numbers of users, Facebook collects user data and content and even stores messages created by users that were never transmitted.
So the two top US-based Internet privacy groups — Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy — have complained to the Federal Trade Commission in the US. They have raised privacy concerns with this acquisition. Their contention is that Fb uses user data for advertisement purposes and have made it clear that it intends to use information from WhatsApp users for its user-profiling business model.
Also, Fb collects user data from the companies it has acquired and a case in point is the Instagram acquisition: The company’s terms of services were changed to incorporate this change. While Fb has stated that WhatsApp will continue to operate independently within Fb and the product roadmap will remain unchanged, it has not made clear if the terms of services for WhatsApp users will change. This is a major concern among a majority of the 450 million WhatsApp users who have provided their personal details based on the current terms of usage, which has been clear about not collecting or sharing users’ personal data.
The fact remains that after the Edward Snowden revelations on the snooping by the NSA, the issue of sensitive data being collected and shared has got the attention of authorities and consumers.
It will be prudent for the Competition Commission of India to analyse the deal from the Indian consumers’ interest and then provide its approval. While a comprehensive privacy Bill is yet to be introduced in Parliament, the right to privacy is covered under Article 21 and the rules under Section 43A of the Information Technology Act.
The government is also stepping up its efforts to protect data of Indian Internet users by asking email providers to set up local servers. The Department of Telecom has been asked to examine the feasibility of making it mandatory for all telecom and Internet companies to route local data through the National Internet Exchange of India and mirrored Indian content might also have to stay in Indian servers only.
The Facebook-WhatsApp deal might be an eye opener for many consumers in India as well as the Internet providers to ensure strict compliance with data protection and user privacy standards.
Subimal Bhattacharjee writes on issues of cyberspace
The views expressed by the author are personal