One major change that concerns users’ privacy is that WhatsApp will now collect some new metadata and hardware data. Metadata is data about data; the new metadata collected include time, frequency and duration of interactions, group names, pictures and descriptions, payments data, online status, last seen, general location, etc.
Facilitating targeted advertising
The other big change is that WhatsApp will now share your data with other Facebook companies and this data will be used by them to design their products and improve targeting. This is another major privacy concern because, previously, the user had the choice to opt out of such sharing. Now, that choice has been taken away – the policy presents itself as a take-it-or-leave-it idea of user consent to data sharing. In the European region, where the General Data Protection Regulation is in force, the policy is different – it still allows for sharing, but shared data cannot be used for the other Facebook companies’ own purposes. The takeaway here is that a strong privacy law can force large technology companies to limit at least the purposes for which they track user behaviour. The upcoming personal data protection bill in India must include similar purpose limitations and restrictions on sharing data with third parties.
More than just privacy
However, this data sharing is more than a privacy issue. Such sharing enables the further integration of the Facebook group companies. It will now become easier for businesses to sell and target users across the Facebook platforms, including WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook itself. Since payments data will also be shared, one can expect the integration of payments systems across these platforms.
Facebook has long expressed its intention to carry out such integration. It consolidates the power of its scale and scope as a business; behavioural data of people from multiple platforms can now be used together, giving Facebook a leg up over other companies that do not own comparable multiple platforms. This is a social media behemoth like no other and is openly anti-competitive. Further, deep integration of this kind makes any future separation or breaking up of the different Facebook businesses that much more difficult. A case will be made that separation is too costly due to all the integration. The plans for breaking up Big Tech, popularised by Elizabeth Warren, will be left with no teeth. Competition regulators worldwide did not stop the acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook in 2014; perhaps they would do well today to halt further integration of these platforms if there is ever to be any hope of separating them to prevent monopolisation of communication platforms.
Preparing for a retail assault
Given the Reliance deal and the plans of Reliance to bring millions of kirana stores online, many of these businesses that WhatsApp expects to interact with users will be kirana stores. Thus the policy allows for the creation of a ‘super app’ on the lines of WeChat – an app where you communicate as well as perform commercial transactions, with all data integrated, making profiling that much easier – and that much more vulnerable to surveillance. Further, with the expansion of WhatsApp-Jio as a retail platform and with no competitors to speak of, small shops will have no choice but to play by the platform’s rules. In the future, these rules may include commissions and other conditions of sale. A similar situation has arisen with Amazon in the US, where commissions are now about 30 per cent, and sellers on Amazon are unable to move to other platforms because of the hold Amazon has over a large part of the consumer market.
Jio and WhatsApp have already captured the consumer market – capturing the sellers’ market will not be too difficult for them.
(Jai Vipra is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Centre for Applied Law and Technology Research (ALTR), Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy).