Post Mortem

Making privacy a mainstream debate

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 1/18/2021 12:20:36 PM IST

 In the wee hours of a rather cold Delhi winter morning, I received a phone call from my rather anxious 83-year-old uncle. He asked, “What should I do? I just accepted the new WhatsApp terms without reading too much into it. How can I withdraw it now? WhatsApp has been my only means to communicate with my kids in US. What do I do if they shift to Telegram? What happens to my data on WhatsApp?”

This was not an isolated conversation, indicating that we are at a potentially seminal moment of consumer understanding of privacy and what it entails.

Since its inception, WhatsApp has claimed security and privacy as its core DNA. With its new “take-it-or-leave-it” policy, Whatsapp essentially threatened users of deleting their accounts, unless they accept the new terms before May. The earlier deadline was February 8, but was deferred. Consumers are now recognising that there is a price attached to the service.

Since 2016, WhatsApp has been sharing data with Facebook, with the caveat that users could opt out by manually editing their settings within 30 days. So, this new policy is not about WhatsApp sharing more data with Facebook than it already did until now. It is, rather, about Facebook leveraging user data and engagement on WhatsApp to build a platform where businesses can start sharing and selling products and services to WhatsApp users. None of this is a surprise. Facebook’s acquisition was always with an intent to monetise WhatsApp for its data.

WhatsApp, with its new “take-it-or leave-it” privacy policy, may not have anticipated the severe consumer backlash against it. Consumers often miss reading the rather small fine print of the terms of the services. However, the fact that the new terms are mandatory made all the difference.

Telegram and Signal are the two platforms that consumers are embracing, with installs flying off the charts for both of them. Telegram offers extensive features such as larger groups, heavy files, and unlimited cloud storage along with end-to-end encrypted secret chats. Signal, on the other hand, is a relatively new name for most consumers in India. It offers a simple UX and some basic features with default end-to-end encryption. As network effects shape the future of messaging and communications apps, the question of which of the platforms emerges as a sustainable alternative needs to be seen. If you are still on the fence, and contemplating what to do next if you are on WhatsApp, here is my answer.

Over the short-term, nothing much has changed. WhatsApp remains secure. WhatsApp remains end-to-end encrypted. And it will continue to share data as it has been doing all along. However, all of this is immaterial if users keep shifting to other apps before May. You need to be on the same platform where most of your peers, business partners, and most importantly, your loved ones are.

If you take a long-term view, the future will never be the same from here on for WhatsApp. The messaging service has now moved into a different trajectory — one focused on monetisation. It will now find it tough to regain or retain user trust. While messages remain secure and encrypted, as Facebook seeks to build tighter cross-platform integration across its ecosystem, the user data on WhatsApp could fall prey to it through data-sharing, or, for instance, targeted and precise advertising. There is no assurance that there will not be any further changes to the terms of use going forward. It all boils down to whether one is WhatsApp’s consumer or rather its product offering.

The conversation around WhatsApp policy has moved beyond just those engaged in the world of tech policy and privacy. When consumers, like my 83-year-old uncle, seek to grasp and work out the issues around what privacy means and entails, you know change is in the air.

Prabhu Ram (Heads the Industry Intelligence Group (IIG) 

at CyberMedia Research)


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