WhatsApp has now made it mandatory to agree to user data being shared with other group companies (including popular social media platforms Facebook and Instagram) if one is to use the service after February 8. But what everybody seems to be missing is that it was already sharing the data. The biggest difference from the existing policy (effective since July 2020) is that, so far, WhatsApp gave users the choice to opt out of their data being shared with other Facebook companies.
However, it is highly likely that users did not know about this choice that was buried deep in the policy, and didn’t exercise the option within the stipulated 30 days. So data was always being shared. The new policy does not worsen the risk. What being part of Facebook entails: In 2019, Facebook made around $70 million in revenue, out of which $69 million was advertising revenue. Essentially, Facebook collects data such as its users’ lifestyle, social circle, political inclinations and so on.
These are then ‘sold’ to advertisers, who can target the users based on their behavioural patterns and inclinations. Ads for a new cosmetic brand could be shown to users who tend to experiment. Other users faithful to another brand could be shown articles trashing that brand, or suggesting that it is always good to try alternatives (rather than merely being shown the new brand). During election season, if one tends to be a reluctant supporter of a politician, they might see articles on how the opposing candidate shares many of their views and is worth a shot. Alternately, articles negatively portraying a particular candidate may be hidden from their view.
It keeps a record of how you interact with others using WhatsApp, and the time, frequency and duration of your activities. It also keeps a record of your phone number, location (if you have enabled it), your phone address book and so on. How does collecting this information help the Facebook ecosystem? To use an analogy, Facebook and Instagram are the apps where people behave as if at a public place. WhatsApp, on the other hand, is where people communicate as if in the privacy of their homes. You meet on Facebook, exchange numbers and take the conversation to WhatsApp.
Tracking WhatsApp usage gives Facebook a vastly better idea of the strength of relationships between their users. Juxtaposed with other information Facebook already knows about the person, this can give insight into aspects of your life that you hide from even one’s closest friends, even without reading your chats. All of this is being done without any significant protection offered to users (such as an undertaking to protect from unauthorised data use from third parties, or being notified in case of a data breach—both specifically offered to users of ‘WhatsApp for Business’). It is tempting to shrug this very unequal relationship as the cost of availing a free service.
That argument is completely misplaced though. A large number of WhatsApp’s users were on board even at the time of the Facebook deal. In other words, the massive user base that Facebook is monetising signed on to the platform under a completely different set of rules. To Facebook, these users are ‘captive consumers’, giving the company a ‘dominant position’, which competition law prohibits them from abusing. Interestingly, when the deal was struck, Facebook claimed in filings with the European Union authorities that it was not possible to automatically match users accounts of the two services, but went on to do precisely that, leading to a fine of $122 billion by the European antitrust regulator (small change, one might argue), and greater protections for European users .
Even more curious is the fate of a case pending in the Supreme Court regarding sharing of data between the two services. In March 2017, a five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court directed that the case be listed for interim orders on whether the data should be barred from being shared. The government had resisted interference, arguing that a law for protection of personal data was imminent, which would address these concerns. In the four years since, neither has the case been heard, nor the much-awaited law moved past political impasse.
The wait could not be costlier. Every day more and more Indians share data with sundry apps that process the data without any accountability. We grant them permissions—but a large swathe of our population cannot read a document of legalese, much less understand its import. The data is then used to allow faceless entities manipulate our behaviour and choices—including undermining democracy, at times.
Abraham C Mathews (Tweets @ebbruz)
A Delhi-based advocate