When the free instant messaging service WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $19.3 billion, its founder Jan Koum had assured users that their data would not be shared with the social media giant. Two years later, the company sought permission from users, via a slightly confusing electronic form, for the right to share data. India is one of the nations where the volte face has caused alarm. The Delhi High Court has directed WhatsApp to delete user data collected for sharing from users in India upto September 25. However, it is not clear how compliance will be secured, since India does not have a regulatory framework for instant messaging services.
Privacy law which covers over the top services, and a regulator to oversee it, are clearly needed in India. Equally, the limits of a purely legalistic approach are patently obvious. These are services in a marketplace, which is an arbiter itself. Companies are badly hurt by negative sentiment. If people find service terms and conditions unacceptable, they choose alternatives. If WhatApp is perceived to be taking advantage of users, competing apps like Telegram would benefit, taking away market share. A regulator must step in when a player tries to leverage size and market dominance to seek a monopoly. Even in such situations, the market may suss out the game on its own.
Services like WhatsApp should indeed be brought under a regulator and investigated to see if evolving policies are adequately explained. However, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Services can be offered for free only by commodifying and monetising the user, and this may involve the dilution of privacy. WhatsApp is great for sharing silly jokes and those exasperating good morning messages. But it would be a daft idea to hold a board meeting using it, where algorithmic data mining would be deeply problematic. While a regulatory framework is awaited, concerned people should graduate their use of such services intelligently and make their opinions patent.
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