Tech vs Privacy: The Need For Trade-off

Tech vs Privacy: The Need For Trade-off

[This piece has been authored by Saurabh Sinha, an independent researcher in New Delhi.]



On August 25, 2022, The Delhi High Court rejected an appeal by WhatsApp and Facebook against the Competition Commission of India’s order for a probe into the updated privacy policy of WhatsApp.

A Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court is set to hear on January 17, 2023, a plea with respect to the WhatsApp privacy policy and sharing of user data with Facebook.

In January 2021, WhatsApp updated its privacy policy in India asking the users to accept without any choice its updated terms and conditions. In fact, its genesis dates to August 2016 when the messaging app updated its policy enabling WhatsApp to share certain kinds of user data such as phone number and IP address with Facebook. However, at that time the users were provided a cut-off date (25-09-2016) to continue using it. Pre-existing users were given an option of opt-out, but this option was not available for new users. The updated privacy policy left users with no choice but to accept its policy and the opt-out decision was not made available.

The consequences

The privacy policy of 2021 created a lot of furor in the media, explaining its repercussions to the users. They also suggested alternatives, the most significant among them being Signal. This did not however prevent India’s Competition watchdog, the Competition Commission of India to take suo moto cognizance of the matter and initiate a probe. In a judgment delivered on 24-03-2021, the Commission ruled against the privacy policy. It observed: The Commission is of the considered opinion that WhatsApp has prima facie contravened the provisions of section 4 of the Act (Competition Act, 2002) through its exploitative and exclusionary conduct in the garb of policy update. A thorough and detailed investigation is required to ascertain the full extent, scope, and impact of data sharing through the involuntary construct of the users.

WhatsApp with one of the largest databases in the world, with a major chunk of that being in India has always remained in the news or some controversy from time to time. From being scammed through the messaging app, to being cheated through impersonation, in one way or another other it has always created a buzz. With a humungous database, several malaises have crept into the app. It has always remained in news due to the proliferation of fake news and various other means through which users can be duped easily and tricked into a scam. It is for this very reason that WhatsApp bans several million accounts in India every month as per the mandate of the new IT rules, 2021. This figure keeps increasing each month with the total figure of banned accounts in September 2022 being more than 26 lakhs as provided by the company.

On September 07, 2022, the Director of Serum Institute of India lost Rs 1.01 crore to a WhatsApp scam by a person impersonating as the CEO of the institute, Adar Poonawala using his profile photo.

On October 07, 2022, Pavel Durov, the founder of Telegram warned users to stay away from WhatsApp. He went on to say that WhatsApp has been a surveillance tool for thirteen years. The statement came after a security advisory was issued by the messaging app in September, 2022 which was rated critical. Durov emphasised that he was not forcing users to switch to Telegram but advised consumers to use any app other than WhatsApp.

 A report published in The Hindu Dt. 02-12-2022 states that data of 360 million WhatsApp users from 108 countries were sold on the Dark Web.

Privacy: The narrow construct  

Most users of tech platforms and social media seem to weave the issue of privacy in a very narrowly constructed manner. For many, the issue of privacy remains confined to their private chats or conservations remaining secured from being under surveillance or being revealed publicly, and with WhatsApp assuring users with respect to this aspect, most users remained quite convinced.

To what extent a large section of the population will shift to other alternatives depends upon how well they understand and conceptualize these issues. The larger issue of data privacy and security does not seem to bother many. Even though it should be accorded equal importance as also observed by the CCI in its order. Big Tech companies like Facebook, WhatsApp, Google, etc. are data guzzlers and in lieu of providing free services, they are keeping surveillance on every aspect of an individual’s life; their likes, dislikes, choices, fears, insecurities, etc., creating a behavioural profile of a user and exploiting it for commercial gain through advertisements. Most users infer free only in monetary terms, and being convinced that they are not paying for it from their hard-earned savings, are more than happy with the concept of free, remaining oblivious (consciously or unconsciously) to the freedom they are parting with in lieu of using the services of the Big Tech. When something is free then you are the product as the adage goes. The users thus have two options to exercise:

  1. Use free services of the Big Tech companies by not paying monetarily and part with their valuable data and let them surveil an individual.
  2. Pay for the services like mail, messaging apps or social media apps by opting for a yearly or monthly subscription and secure their data and privacy.

Most users will opt for the latter only if they accord more importance to it than the former.

Besides, there are other legal issues that inter-alia includes anti-trust (preventing monopolies in business and ensuring fair competition), abuse of dominant position, and network effects (the value of a good or service increases as more users join the network). The impact of network effects and users unwilling to shift to other platforms has also been dealt with by the Competition Commission in India in its judgment (Suo Moto case no 01 of 2021). It observed: WhatsApp is the most widely used app for instant messaging in India. A communication/network platform gets more valuable as more users join it, thereby benefiting from network effects. In India, the network effects have indubitably set in for WhatsApp which undergird its position of strength and limits its substitutability with other functionally similar apps/platforms. This, in turn, causes a strong lock-in effect for users, switching to another platform for whom gets difficult and meaningless until all or most of their social contacts also switch to the same platform. Users wishing to switch would have to convince their contacts to switch and these contacts would have to convince their other contacts to switch. The network effects have been reflected when despite the increase in downloads of competing apps like Signal and Telegram, the user base of WhatsApp did not suffer any significant loss.

The alternatives

Here are a few good alternatives to major tech platforms:

  1. WhatsApp: A few good alternatives of WhatsApp are Threema and Wire. Threema is a Swiss app and hence follows the stringent General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in force in the European Union. It has all the features of WhatsApp and does not require any phone number or e-mail to use it. It has a unique block unknown feature and also offers message inter-operability i.e., messages to WhatsApp, Signal or any other messaging platform can be sent from Threema. It’s a paid app and can be downloaded on a smartphone for a one-time payment. Wire also does not require a phone number to register and is good on security. It also offers message interoperability.
  2. Facebook: MeWe can be used in place of Facebook. It serves no ads on one’s timeline and does not operate through algorithms preventing spying.
  3. Google Search: ‘’ can be used as a substitute for google search. Though it uses google search index for delivering results, it removes all information through which an individual can be identified (including his location) from the search results. Though some ads are displayed in the search results, they are based on the search keywords and not search behaviour, thus a behavioural profile of the user is not created. ‘’ is another good search engine. It has an independent search index, but the search results are like other major search engines.
  4. Gmail: With a lot of people peeved by the number of spam or junk mail they receive on their phones every day and the ads, ProtonMail can serve as a good alternative. It is completely ad-free and also has an app version. Both the free and paid versions are available depending on the requirements of the user.
  5. Google Chrome Browser: With the Computer Emergency and Response Team (CERT-In) issuing multiple warnings for Chrome browser with respect to its vulnerability and security in the past few months, users can switch to the following option:
  • Brave: Brave is also an open-source browser that protects user privacy and blocks all trackers. It is one of the most popular browsers. Is customizable as per needs and is a good substitute to chrome.

While there is no dearth of good alternatives for using the internet in a secure way, its success depends on how the users perceive various issues. Perceiving the entire gamut of issues in a holistic manner would ensure fair competition and a level playing field. Awareness by the media, on these issues, would help a lot in changing the perspective of the users.


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