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A user in Mumbai updates Facebook's WhatsApp application on his mobile phone. Photo: AFP

WhatsApp-obsessed Indonesia and India struggle to forsake app amid privacy policy confusion

  • The combined 590 million users in the two countries have become reliant on the messaging app, but are learning to adapt to rivals like Signal and Telegram
  • Analysts said the Facebook-owned app’s new privacy policy would spur greater awareness in India and Indonesia about the importance of data protection
When WhatsApp announced an update to its privacy terms earlier this month, many among its 2 billion users worldwide raced to download rival apps Signal and Telegram, including those in Asia’s second- and third-largest countries, India and Indonesia.

But analysts say abandoning the messaging app will be harder for the 450 million users in India, who form WhatsApp’s largest base worldwide, and the 140 million in Indonesia, where the app has surged in popularity in recent years.

Increased internet penetration and cheap mobile devices and data packages have brought millions more people online in recent years in developing nations such as India and Indonesia, and, as a result, users have abandoned conventional short-messaging services and flocked to social media and messaging platforms to connect with loved ones and businesses.

Indeed, Shankaran Krishnan, a retired teacher in Bangalore who uses WhatsApp daily to chat with his son and grandchildren in the US, said he was hesitant to follow his son’s advice to uninstall the app.

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“I’m not sure whether other apps will be user-friendly like this one. It already took me a lot of effort in my age to migrate from Skype to WhatsApp years ago,” said the 63-year-old.

Similarly, Florencia Purnama, 34, who sells accessories in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, said she was alarmed by news reports about the privacy changes. But because she used the app heavily to chat with customers, family and friends, she would only decide whether to uninstall it in May.

That is the month WhatsApp, which is owned by California-based Facebook, will implement its updated privacy policy – a move it had planned for February before a wave of criticism prompted it to announce a delay in the plan, which it said would give it time to clear up confusion.

WhatsApp had notified users earlier this month that they would need to agree to changes covering the type of data that can be shared between the app and Facebook, sparking fears it meant Facebook could view the content of their messages, which are encrypted.

WhatsApp is running advertisements in Indian newspapers explaining its new privacy terms. Photo: AFP

The company clarified that this was not the case and that the update was intended to boost e-commerce across Facebook-owned apps. Indeed, Facebook has not been able to monetise WhatsApp yet – almost all of Facebook’s US$21.5 billion revenue in 2020 came from ads on all its platforms.

With WhatsApp’s new privacy terms, Facebook expects it will be able to offer more targeted ads to users on Facebook and Instagram, as well as allowing businesses to perform transactions via WhatsApp, where customers can use Facebook Pay.

The new privacy policy update will allow businesses that communicate with their customers on WhatsApp “to see what you’re saying and may use that information for its own marketing purposes, which may include advertising on Facebook”, the company said.

And therein lies the concern, at least for India. On Monday, the country’s technology ministry demanded that WhatsApp withdraw its privacy changes, saying there were “grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens”, according to an email it sent to WhatsApp boss Will Cathcart, Reuters reported.

WhatsApp said in response to the demand that 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.

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Meanwhile it bought front-page advertisements in leading Indian newspapers to calm worried users. The update to the privacy policy has also resulted in two legal petitions in Indian courts.

Some Indian users, concerned about the implications of the change, have already diversified into other messaging apps.

Bangalore-based entrepreneur Rajneesh Bhatia, who uses WhatsApp extensively to run his start-up Family Farmers, which delivers organic products to customers, said he was planning to use Telegram or Signal in case his customers were no longer comfortable with WhatsApp.

“We have started moving our customers to Telegram,” he added. According to a survey of over 9,000 participants conducted by community social media platform LocalCircles, published on January 13, about 75 per cent of Indian users intend to either abruptly stop using WhatsApp or move to other messaging apps, or will drastically reduce usage.

But Kazim Rizvi, founding director of New Delhi-based policy think tank The Dialogue, said it would take three to four years for any other app to reach the level of users WhatsApp has, given its inherent technical advantages that may be more appealing to Indian users.


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“WhatsApp, over the years, has achieved the network effect, which enables the user to send ‘Good Morning’ messages to over 200 users and groups within a couple of seconds. This virality is not available on other apps for now,” he added.

Indonesians also seem to gone to their backup plans, even if WhatsApp was still the seventh most downloaded app overall on the Indonesian iOS app store this week, although its downloads went from 1.9 million in the December 21 to January 3 period to 1.4 million in the two weeks that followed, a decline of 26 per cent.

Signal, meanwhile, was downloaded 1.5 million times in the January 4 to January 17 period, a whopping 50,000 per cent jump from the prior two weeks, and Dubai-based messaging app Telegram saw a jump in new Indonesian users of 64 per cent in the same period, according to Sensor Tower, a marketing research firm. Also downloaded were Line, owned by South Korea’s Naver Corp and already popular in Indonesia, and under-the-radar Turkish messaging app Bip.

Wahyudi Djafar, a personal data protection researcher at Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy, said that despite the increased downloads of other messaging apps, WhatsApp would remain dominant in Indonesia because “it is the most user-friendly private messaging app at the moment”.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg finds himself at the centre of a WhatsApp user backlash after the company announced a new privacy policy for the app in an attempt to boost business. Photo: AFP

Satish Meena, a senior forecast analyst at Forrester Research, said that the legal challenge in India reflected a weakness in Facebook’s public relations outreach, especially considering that this is not the first time Facebook has faced such issues.

In 2016, Facebook had a major setback in India when the country’s telecoms regulator blocked its free internet initiative, called, for violating net neutrality tenets – something Meena said had never happened with other big services providers like Google or Microsoft. .

Such controversies, Meena said, “are bound to attract unwanted attention from the policymakers. Already, the governments are thinking twice on how to make huge companies like Facebook more accountable”.

Wahyudi said that one of the positive effects from the outcry over WhatsApp was that Indonesians would now be more attuned to the importance of personal data protection, bringing the government’s proposed data protection bill back into focus.

When we ask the General public about what ‘privacy’ means for them, they would probably say ‘I don’t care’
Wahyudi Djafar, Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy

Indonesian lawmakers have delayed discussion about a personal data protection bill, which mirrors the European Union’s data protection law, since it was proposed in 2014. The bill would regulate users’ rights to data protection and outline obligations of digital platforms, as well as establish an independent data protection authority to ensure compliance from internet and tech companies.

This year, the bill is included in the list of priority bills, sparking hope among rights activists that it could finally be passed.

“Data breaches in Indonesia happened nearly every month in 2020, and it hit all kinds of sectors from e-commerce, health care, to elections, but the investigations were never adequate and there was no accountability,” Wahyudi said. “These are the sort of things that will be regulated by the law.”

“When we ask the general public about what ‘privacy’ means for them, they would probably say ‘I don’t care’, but this [debate about WhatsApp’s new privacy policy] has accelerated public awareness about the importance of having a personal data protection law in place.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: WhatsApp privacy changes send wrong signal to 590m