The Centre has asked WhatsApp to withdraw plans to overhaul the social media platform’s privacy policies, saying the proposed changes raise “grave concerns” about the “choice and autonomy of Indian citizens,” PTI reported on Tuesday. The government said the company’s new rules were discriminatory towards Indian users.

Unidentified officials told NDTV that the central government sent a list of 14 questions to WhatsApp, asking the company to disclose the exact categories of data that it collects from users in India, the permissions and user consent sought by the app, and how each of these would be used.

In a letter to WhatsApp Chief Executive Officer Will Cathcart, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said the company must reconsider its approach to information privacy, freedom of choice and data security. It added that any “unilateral changes” to the privacy policies “would not be fair and acceptable”.

“The new policy of WhatsApp proposes to share the metadata of users’ chat with business accounts with other Facebook companies,” the ministry said, according to NDTV. “It would create a honeypot of information about users with Facebook group which can create security risks and vulnerabilities for users.”

The government objected to the “differential privacy policies” of the company for the European Union and India. “Given that India has the largest user base for WhatsApp in the world, this discriminatory treatment to Indian users shows lack of respect for interests of Indian citizens by WhatsApp,” it said. “In this context, government reminds WhatsApp that it has a sovereign right to protect the interests of Indian citizens and it shall not compromise on that at any cost.”

The ministry further opposed to the “all-or-nothing approach of WhatsApp” that forces users to accept the new service terms and privacy policies, without giving an option to the users to opt-out of this proposed change of integrating user data with other Facebook companies.

The government also sought an explanation from WhatsApp as to why the company brought about “such significant changes”, when the Indian Parliament was already considering the Personal Data Protection Bill, reported NDTV. “This bill, which is at an advance stage of consideration by the joint select committee of both houses of the parliament, strongly follows the principle of ‘purpose limitation’ with regard to data processing,” it added.

Earlier in the day, Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the government was looking into the changes made by the popular messaging app, and asserted that sanctity of personal communication needs to be maintained, reported PTI. “Be it WhatsApp, be it Facebook, be it any digital platform – You are free to do business in India but do it in a manner without impinging upon the rights of Indians who operate there,” Prasad said.

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The WhatsApp controversy

On January 16, WhatsApp had announced that it would delay the planned privacy update, as the messaging service found itself in the throes of widespread backlash about the safety of user data. WhatsApp said it would push back the changes to May 15 from February 8, and would “do lot more to clear up the misinformation” about the app.

While concerns about data privacy with respect to WhatsApp are not new, the new WhatsApp privacy policy released on January 4, sparked a mass exodus towards other messenger platforms like Signal and Telegram. Questions have been raised about how the company was forcing users to agree to share their information with Facebook if they want to keep using the service.

The policy makes it clear that WhatsApp collects expansive meta data from users’ phones, including internet protocol addresses and phone number area codes to estimate users’ geographical location. More significantly, the privacy policy confirms that WhatsApp will allow Facebook access to messages that users share with businesses on the messenger app, which will enable Facebook to further influence user behaviour through targeted advertising.

WhatsApp had issued two clarifications to assuage privacy concerns of users. On January 10, the messaging platform said that its latest update describes business communication and does not change its data-sharing practices with Facebook. Again on January 15, it said that the new policy does not affect the privacy of users’ messages with their friends and family.