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WhatsApp on fire-fighting mode, but is it too late?

WhatsApp's privacy update pop-up has sparked off an outrage

whatsapp-messages-mobile-shut Sensing the backlash that seems to show little signs of abating, WhatsApp has kicked-off attempts to salvage the situation.

More than a week after its privacy update pop-up evoked seething discontent across India and the world and sparked off a debate about ‘Big Tech’ overreach and data privacy, WhatsApp has gotten around to fire fighting. But is it too late?

Sensing the backlash that seems to show little signs of abating and with indications that governments were also getting their act together, the Facebook-owned messaging app has kicked-off attempts to salvage the situation. WhatsApp global head Will Cathcart finally broke his silence earlier this week, explaining the privacy policy in a Twitter thread, besides talking to the media. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, he tried to assuage the feelings of users in India, which constitute its biggest single market, with roughly one in every 4 Indian.

“We started updating our privacy policy last month to provide transparency about our practices,” he said in the interview. “Messages between friends and loved ones remain protected by end-to-end encryption, which means we cannot see them.” 

Cathcart explained in detail the exact reason for going in for a policy update, why the clauses regarding business accounts and syncing with Facebook were brought in, and put them in perspective to parent company Facebook’s founder Zuckerberg buying into Reliance Jio and how the joint business will pan out. The interview will appear in the print edition of THE WEEK hitting stands pan-India on Thursday.

Making matters worse, the tech giant was silent except for a terse press statement in the first few days after the update popped-up on mobile screens across India, even as public criticism began trending on social media. The statement claimed, “WhatsApp remains deeply committed to protecting people’s privacy.”

Perhaps to make up for lost time, WhatsApp brought out full page advertisements in leading newspapers across the country on Wednesday, the ad copy screaming, “WhatsApp respects and protects your privacy.” The ad elucidated in bulleted points ‘What hasn’t changed’ as well as ‘So what has changed?' — a reader-friendly explanation which the new ‘Terms of Service’, running into some 8,000 words and peppered with legal jargon certainly was not.

What is worrisome for the world’s biggest messaging app are two factors — the public anger in India does not show any signs of waning, more than a week after the Update pop-ups started plaguing users, giving them options of either agreeing or opting out of using WhatsApp altogether. It has also directly led to a deluge of smartphone users going in for alternate messaging apps like Signal and Telegram. Ever since it started asking users to agree to the new terms, WhatsApp has dropped from being India’s most downloaded messaging app to No.3, behind alternate options like Signal and Telegram.

Governments getting into the act is also sure to make Facebook feel hot under its collar. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on IT, headed by opposition MP Shashi Tharoor discussed summoning Facebook execs for a hearing over the new policy yesterday. With India’s own new law on data and privacy set to be discussed in Parliament in next month’s budget session, it seems unlikely that the issue will fade out of the headlines any time soon. Other countries, notably Turkey, have also voiced concerns over the new change.