The rollout of WhatsApp’s new privacy policy, which critics warn will lead to more data sharing with its parent company Facebook, received a blow on May 13 after German regulators temporarily banned the update. The regulators are now said to be seeking a European Union-wide ban by presenting their case to the European Data Protection Board.

WhatsApp users will have noticed a recent intensification of pop-ups nudging them to agree to the app’s new terms of service. The cliff-edge deadline for users to accept these new terms – with WhatsApp announcing that those who failed to do so would lose functionality on the app – had been set for Saturday, May 15. That deadline was recently moved forward by “several weeks”.

This extension comes after WhatsApp was forced to scrap its initial February deadline in response to a global backlash against the Facebook subsidiary’s take-it-or-leave-it policy change. Since then, WhatsApp has sought to reassure users that its commitment to end-to-end encryption and user privacy is as strong as ever.

But while the German ban will be a blow to WhatsApp’s ambitions to monetise the app, the messaging platform may ultimately have its sights fixed elsewhere. WhatsApp’s largest market is India, with over 40 crore users. That is more than three times as many users as the app’s second-largest market, Brazil, which has 12 crore users.

That means the messaging app’s privacy changes – built around the introduction of WhatsApp Business – are expected to be particularly lucrative in India, where WhatsApp recently took out front-page adverts in all the country’s daily newspapers in an attempt to placate disgruntled users.

WhatsApp’s continuing resolve to pursue changes to its terms, despite widespread opposition, is best understood by looking at the opportunity for growth big tech firms see in India’s blossoming, less-regulated digital economy.

Explaining changes

Since acquiring WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, Facebook has been exploring how to monetise the app. Determined not to introduce third-party banner ads, the company launched WhatsApp Business and Business API in 2018 to facilitate instant chat and payments between users and businesses, with the latter paying WhatsApp for access to the platform’s users.

The new terms and conditions are a crucial step in this move to make money from WhatsApp because users who agree to them will consent to their information being shared between WhatsApp Business and other Facebook products. According to WhatsApp, only those who use WhatsApp Business will be affected by its new terms.

Still, when WhatsApp’s privacy update was first announced, the Competition Commission of India called for an investigation, condemning the update’s compulsory nature. The commission also criticised WhatsApp and Facebook’s abuse of their network effect within the Indian market, which in practice means users have limited choice to change platforms.

A complaint was also filed with the Delhi High Court confronting the “clear attack on users’ personal data” which “has put a Damocles sword upon its users”, ultimately for Facebook’s gain. The next date for the court hearing is May 21.

Like users in the UK and Europe, Indian citizens also protested the changes by downloading alternative messaging platforms, such as Signal and Telegram, in record-breaking numbers.

But unlike Europeans, who enjoy the protection of EU privacy laws and assertive regulators prepared to ban the update altogether, Indian users are protected by fewer privacy laws. India’s Personal Data Protection Bill has not yet been implemented, leaving WhatsApp with a diminishing window of opportunity to monetise the data of its Indian users.

India’s soaring smartphone connectivity means it is a tempting market for big tech firms. Photo credit: Narinder Naanu / AFP

Privacy in India

For India’s citizens, protests against WhatsApp’s privacy policy are informed by distrust in big tech and the Indian government. Their discontent is wrapped up in ongoing concerns about the limits of privacy on WhatsApp, and a wider understanding that the government is willing to sacrifice access and privacy for control and security.

Despite the messaging platform’s “#ItsBetweenYou’” campaign in India, which emphasised WhatsApp’s commitment to privacy, the platform feels less than private when the government targets its critics for surveillance on the app, when private health data is shared on neighbourhood WhatsApp groups during the pandemic and when police routinely seize smartphones to access their WhatsApp chat histories.

This sense of encroachment on privacy has been further heightened by the Indian government’s expediting of its new internet regulations, which will force platforms to hand over user information to law enforcement upon request.

Critics argue that such moves are tantamount to “digital authoritarianism” and that, while India’s forthcoming data protection laws may offer greater digital privacy, they may also enable further government misuse of citizens’ data – as we have seen in China.

WhatsApp’s resolve

Against this backdrop of weak privacy protections, Facebook bought a 9.99% stake in Jio Platforms for $5.7 billion in April 2020. The telecommunications company, a subsidiary of Reliance Industries, runs the JioMart and JioMoney platforms – strategically important for Facebook’s expansion into India.

Then, in November 2020, WhatsApp Payments received government approval after two years of regulatory pushback and protectionism – opening the door for WhatsApp to compete in India’s payments market.

This carefully orchestrated double move not only integrates WhatsApp and WhatsApp Payments with India’s increasingly dominant e-commerce platform JioMart – it also provides Facebook with a valuable ally in India’s wealthiest businessman, Mukesh Ambani.

Ambani previously warned Modi about the threat of “data colonialisation” as foreign tech companies turn to India’s huge market as their next source of growth. Now he appears to have paved the way for United States-based Facebook to enjoy the spoils, via WhatsApp Business and its new terms and conditions.

Since WhatsApp is regarded as a “bare necessity” in everyday life, most of its users will eventually accept the new privacy policy in the absence of regulations to ban it. But as WhatsApp pivots its product from protecting democratic life through free speech to generating profit from its new business platform, the data of Indian citizens is likely the primary target.

Philippa Williams is a Reader in Human Geography at the Queen Mary University of London. Lipika Kamra is an Associate Professor in Politics and Anthropology at OP Jindal Global University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.