The Centre on Monday told the Delhi High Court that WhatsApp was treating India and the European Union differently in connection with giving users a choice to opt out of its new privacy policy, and that it was a major cause of concern, reported Live Law. The court was hearing a petition challenging the updated policy of WhatsApp for which the messaging platform has faced intense criticism.

“Indian users form a substantial part of WhatsApp’s user base, yet preferential treatment has been given to EU [European Union] users, this is a major cause of concern,” Additional Solicitor General Chetan Sharma said. “Reasonable and cogent policies must be put in place by WhatsApp.”

On January 4, WhatsApp had announced changes to its privacy policy. Questions were raised about how the company was forcing users to agree to share their information with Facebook – which owns the cross-messaging platform – if they want to keep using the service.

During Monday’s hearing, Sharma said that WhatsApp seemed to appear to be treating users with “all or nothing approach” by not giving them a choice to opt out of sharing their data with other companies of Facebook, according to PTI.

“This leverages the social significance of WhatsApp to force users into a bargain which may infringe on their interests in information privacy and information security,” he told the court.

Sharma also raised the Personal Data Protection Bill and said that it addresses a number of concerns similar to the ones mentioned in the petition, and lays down a policy with respect to the matter.

When asked if the Centre was looking into the matter, the additional solicitor general replied in affirmative and said that the government had gone on record to state the same. Sharma said that they have sent a communication to WhatsApp, seeking its reply.

Advocate Chaitanya Rohilla, who filed the plea, also answered questions posed by the Centre about his objections in the case. Rohilla told the court that the problem was with respect to the third-party services and threat to the country’s security as the data on the platform is shared globally.

The court reiterated its earlier stand, saying that the use of the application is voluntary and every other application has similar terms and conditions. The court asked the petitioner to clarify how WhatsApp was prejudiced.

“What is the ultimate relief that you are seeking,” the Delhi High Court asked. The petitioner responded that he was seeking directions to the Centre to lay down guidelines to ensure that WhatsApp does not share data with third parties, and also put a stay on their updated privacy policy.

The matter will be heard next on March 1.

New WhatsApp policies

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.

Last week, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology told WhatsApp Chief Executive Officer Will Cathcart that the company must reconsider its approach to information privacy, freedom of choice and data security.

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 such as 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.