WhatsApp in a catch-22 situation over the new privacy policy

The multiple clarifications by WhatsApp are intended to stem the tide of migration to other platforms

e4m by Javed Farooqui
Published: Jan 14, 2021 8:13 AM  | 8 min read

Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp is caught in a catch-22 situation over growing concern among users about data sharing with Facebook and its own business interest which envisages using WhatsApp data for better ad targeting on Facebook and Instagram.
Amidst the controversy over its new privacy policy, WhatsApp has issued front-page ads in leading newspapers to allay the fears of its users, who are leaving the platform in droves to rival messaging platforms like Signal and Telegram. The multiple clarifications are intended to stem the tide of migration to other platforms.

Concerned over the growing public outcry, WhatsApp's parent company Facebook has also called a meeting of its India Client Council to discuss the matter. The council is made up of a diverse group of leading client/agency partners and is a forum for sharing ideas about the future of marketing.

Reiterating its earlier FAQ on the issue, the print ad asserts that both WhatsApp and Facebook cannot access private messages or calls. "WhatsApp cannot see your private messages or hear your calls, and neither can Facebook: every private message, photo, video, voice message, and document you send your friends, family, and co-workers in one-on-one or group chats are protected by end-to-end encryption. It stays between you," WhatsApp said.

On the issue of data sharing with Facebook, the platform said, “WhatsApp cannot see your shared location and neither can Facebook. WhatsApp groups remain private: we use group membership to deliver messages and to protect our service from spam and abuse. We don't share this data with Facebook for ad purposes. Again, these private chats are end-to-end encrypted so we can't see their content. WhatsApp does not share your contacts with Facebook or any other app.”

WhatsApp's clarification did not cut much ice with many people. Paytm founder and CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma questioned the double standards practiced by Facebook as far as privacy policy is concerned. He took to Twitter to air his views. His tweet was accompanied by two images - WhatsApp's front page ad and the other one was a news article image from Irish Times which quoted WhatsApp as saying that European users will not have to share data with Facebook.

"How long we will be taken for granted by such blatant double standards? Self-claimed ad claiming respect of our privacy v/s actual policy," Sharma said in his tweet.

On 11th January, he had alleged in a tweet that Facebook/WhatsApp are abusing their monopoly by compromising on user privacy. He also urged Twitter users to migrate to the Signal messaging app. "They say, the market has power. We are the largest market. Here in India WhatsApp/Facebook are abusing their monopoly & taking away millions of users' privacy for granted. We should move on to @signalapp NOW. It is up to us to become the victim or reject such moves," Sharma had posted on his Twitter account.

Madison World chairman Sam Balsara feels that WhatsApp will lose 10-15% of its existing user base if it doesn't make amends to its privacy policy. "I am glad that Indians are getting conscious about their rights and the issue around privacy. I also feel that Facebook and WhatsApp will be responsive to the Indian public opinion and are not going to allow their largest market to diminish. I am sure they will make some adjustments to their privacy policy to satisfy us. I guess they will lose 10-15% of their user base if they don't do that."

IPG Mediabrands India CEO Shashi Sinha feels that the issue has been blown out of proportion as the privacy policy pertains mostly to WhatsApp Business accounts. "My understanding is that this new privacy policy is mainly for WhatsApp Business users. It's not a big deal since it does not have any impact on the personal usage of WhatsApp."

Concurring with Sinha, Kwebmaker founder, and CEO Dhananjay Arora said that the WhatsApp privacy policy is no threat to personal chats and group chats as WhatsApp has confirmed that these are secure and users' personal data, chats, location, contacts, etc. are not shared.

"The sharing of data comes for WhatsApp Business accounts (which is an important monetization platform for otherwise free to use WhatsApp). Data on business chats can be shared with Facebook and from a marketer's perspective, this is a good thing. This will allow brands and marketers to target users across the Facebook universe which includes Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram to do even better 'targeting' of your clients/customers."

He further stated that the policy will help marketers to do targeted advertising. He also said that India needs better privacy and data protection laws to prevent misuse of data. "From a digital advertising perspective, it actually narrows down the users even more precisely which means brands get more focused advertising which leads to more tangle and better ROI. On the flip side, this should not be used by anti-social elements to promote hate messages and polarisation. Let's hope the data exchange and further micro-targeting only leads to better advertising with a positive approach. But this also shows that India needs better privacy and data protection law which is the need of the hour."

Mirum India Joint CEO Sanjay Mehta claimed that WhatsApp has already been using and sharing data with Facebook. Through the new policy, it is just taking formal approval from users to use their data. "As per my knowledge, WhatsApp data was already being used/shared in some or the other way. At least that is the perception that I have, as I have sensed occasionally, advertising on FB/Instagram in the context of discussion happening on WhatsApp. In that scenario, this change of policy may fundamentally be about taking our formal approval, to something that was anyway happening."

Expanding on that point, Mehta said that every internet company tracks its users for better consumer insights. "For that matter, anything that you do on the Internet is likely being tracked and recorded to build up rich data around your profile, so that the right content/ advertising/e-commerce options, etc can be served to you. That is the power of digital, and all publishers whose sites you go to, all apps that you use, your bank, your credit card company, perhaps your utility companies as well, your search engine, your video consumption service, your OTT platforms, etc."

The 'Boycott WhatsApp' call notwithstanding, Mehta feels that switching to other platforms will come with its own set of challenges. "Moreover, the essence of the success of a messaging platform like WhatsApp is the enormous user base that they have. You are more likely to be able to connect to anyone on WhatsApp, than on any other platform. Now to switch to another platform would be a huge challenge. One must appreciate that managing a massive messaging platform like WhatsApp (billions of users, billions of messages) is not trivial. To ensure that the service is always available works on all devices, the servers take the loads even on huge surges of traffic, and moreover, constantly innovate, takes a lot of effort."

Taking Mehta's point about the tracking of users by internet companies forward, Filter Coffee Co. founder Anuja Deora Sanctis said, "The recently announced Whatsapp Privacy Policy is a matter of concern but not that alarming if you monitor how much and where you are sharing your personal details. As per the terms and conditions, the mention of end-to-end encryption should put a sigh of relief across users. Also, the latest update will be limited to business accounts thereby waving off worries of the public."

She also indicated that the data sharing between Facebook and WhatsApp will benefit agencies and brands. "For us as a digital agency, this step by WhatsApp will filter a more specified and focussed target audience to deliver. Looking at how the Facebook algorithm has worked, we can only look forward to a more impactful reach and hiked scope of visibility therefore soaring new profits for our brands. With privacy being considered as a priority and delivering to what the users want, this latest update is definitely a smart skip by the app towards digital growth and user satisfaction. This step comes to us as an advantage to create a more present portrayal for their respective brands and strengthen customer traction while delivering quality performance on social media."
Haptik Co-founder and CEO, Aakrit Vaish, believes that WhatsApp's new privacy policy doesn’t affect the end-user in any capacity. He further stated that every interaction a user has with another user will only and only be visible to the two parties. 
While lauding the awareness among people about data privacy, he also stated that there are too many rumours surrounding WhatsApp’s new policy. 
"There’s absolutely no reason for users to worry about data privacy. The only data points that will be shared with Facebook will be when the end-user is conversing with a business. The new policy doesn’t affect a user's conversations with friends and family in any manner. WhatsApp is and will remain the world’s largest end-to-end encrypted messaging platform," Vaish said.

As solution providers of WhatsApp to mid-large scale enterprises, he believes that these are positive changes for businesses in the long run. "Businesses have and will continue to have 'complete control' over their data and 'they can choose' if they wish to share this data with Facebook for advertising purposes. The new policy will also empower businesses to enhance interaction with customers by making it a lot more contextual and personalised."

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