WhatsApp Privacy Policy: Law Minister says Sanctity, privilege of personal communication needs to be maintained

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On a day the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology wrote to WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart, asking him to reverse the new privacy policy that went live earlier this month, saying unilateral changes are not fair and acceptable, Communications and IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the sanctity and privilege of personal communications needs to be maintained.

Responding to a question by Indian Express Group’s executive director Anant Goenka at the 15th India Digital Summit organised by IAMAI, Prasad said that all digital companies are free to operate in India but without impinging upon the rights of Indians. “This is an issue that my department is working on, and being the final authority, it will not be proper for me to make comments, except to flag one thing very clearly, 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,” Prasad said.

He added, “I’ve only spoken on principles, given that my department is working. I have to await that”

Citing examples, Prasad said a doctor talking to his patient, a lawyer talking to his client or a family talking among each other on WhatsApp group are all privileged communications and sanctity of that needs to be respected.

This is the first time that the minister was speaking on the new privacy policy of the popular encrypted messaging app, WhatsApp which has raised a huge user backlash, so much so that the company which was to implement it from February 8 has put it on hold till May 15.

While doing everything to protect data privacy, Prasad said that he wants India to become a big centre of data economy. He said that the country had the potential to become a data refinery where data cleaning, data processing, data innovation can happen. “So many new data centres are coming in the private sector. Data economy must prosper in India by developing a complete ecosystem in this regard,” the minister said. He, however, said as data is linked to digital sovereignty of the country, it must be procured through consent and on voluntary basis and must be used for the objective for which it has been collected and the data fiduciary who procures the data must ensure proper safety and sanctity of the data.

“I do acknowledge the implicit need of the data movement across the globe to keep the digital commerce intact but the ground rule is that movement must be clearly laid out. There must be reciprocity of data sharing and we shall never compromise on data sovereignty,” Prasad said. He also said that the Data Protection Bill is under examination by the select committee of Parliament and once the report comes, it will be fast-tracked for Parliament’s approval.

On 5G, the minister asked Indian players to create an Indian 5G model. “As far as 5G is concerned, it is still evolving. We missed 2G and 3G but we don’t want to miss 5G. Therefore, we developed an Indian test bed, and IITs are involved, so that all innovative aspects of 5G can be considered. 5G must be developed in order to enable inclusive character of its processes for healthcare, education, farming. India’s appetite for 5G will be overpowering as a good commercial enterprise,” he said.

On production-linked incentive scheme for domestic handset manufacturing, Prasad said it was launched during the height of COVID in April 2020 and despite that all the top companies have applied with commitment to make mobile phones worth Rs 10 lakh crore in the coming five years, of which Rs 7 lakh crore is for exports.

“India is today the hub of mobile manufacturing and this process is irreversible… India must become the biggest manufacturing centre of laptops, of machine-2-machine equipment, of tablets etc. I want to develop that ecosystem from mobile phones to smartphones to laptops to tablets to IoT devices. India must become a huge centre of these equipment manufacturing,” he said.

On participation of Chinese companies in offering their products in India, Prasad said it would not be prudent or desirable for him to take the name of any country except to highlight the general policy initiative which the country is following. “Yes, we banned apps because the issue was data privacy, issue was national security, issue was national sovereignty. Therefore, in any exposure of companies, national security angle will also be taken, be it private or government. As far as the relevant financial routes are concerned, some changes have also taken place with regard to countries having physical adjacency with India,” he said.

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