“The proposed changes raise grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens,” the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology wrote in an email to WhatsApp boss Will Cathcart dated January 18.
“Therefore, you are called upon to withdraw the proposed changes,” the ministry wrote in the letter seen by Reuters.
WhatsApp said in a statement it was working to address misinformation and remains available to answer any questions. “We wish to reinforce that this update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook,” it said.
“Such a differential treatment is prejudicial to the interests of Indian users and is viewed with serious concern by the government,” the ministry wrote in the email.
“The government of India owes a sovereign responsibility to its citizens to ensure that their interests are not compromised and therefore it calls upon WhatsApp to respond to concerns raised in this letter.”
Through an in-app alert earlier this month, WhatsApp had asked users to agree to new terms of conditions that grants the app the consent to share with Facebook some personal data about them, such as their phone number and location. Users were initially provided until February 8 to comply with the new policy if they wished to continue using the service.
California-based Facebook invested $5.7 billion last year in the digital unit of Indian conglomerate Reliance with a huge part of that aimed at drawing in tens of millions of traditional shop owners to use digital payments via WhatsApp.
With 400 million users in India, WhatsApp has big plans for the country’s growing digital payments space, including selling health insurance via partners.
Those aspirations could take a hit if Indians switch to rival messengers such as Signal and Telegram, downloads of which have surged after WhatsApp said on January 4 it could share limited user data with Facebook and its group firms.
“This ‘all-or-nothing’ approach takes away any meaningful choice from Indian users. This approach leverages the social significance of WhatsApp to force users into a bargain, which may infringe on their interests in relation to informational privacy and information security,” the ministry said in the email.
India’s IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also offered loud advice to Facebook. “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.”