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WhatsApp Asked to Withdraw Changes to Privacy Policy by MeitY

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 19 January 2021

The Indian government has asked WhatsApp to withdraw the recent changes in the privacy policy of the messaging app, saying unilateral changes are not fair and acceptable.

In a strongly worded letter to WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) said India is home to the largest user base of WhatsApp globally and is one the biggest markets for its services.

The proposed changes to the WhatsApp Terms of Service and Privacy Policy “raise grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens,” it wrote.

The ministry asked WhatsApp to withdraw the proposed changes and reconsider its approach to information privacy, freedom of choice and data security.

Stating that Indians should be properly respected, it said, “any unilateral changes to the WhatsApp Terms of Service and Privacy would not be fair and acceptable.”

The MeitY letter comes a day after the Delhi High court said that accepting the new privacy policy of instant messaging app WhatsApp was a “voluntary” thing and one can choose to not join the platform if one did not agree with its terms and conditions.

“Even Google Maps captures all your data and stores it,” the court said.

“It is a private app. Don’t join it. It is a voluntary thing, don’t accept it. Use some other app,” Justice Sanjeev Sachdeva said to the petitioner, a lawyer, who has challenged WhatsApp’s new privacy policy, which was earlier slated to come into effect in February but has now been deferred till May.

The court further said it could not understand what data would be leaked according to the petitioner and since the issue requires consideration, it will be listed on January 25 due to paucity of time on Monday.

The central government also agreed with the court that the issue needs to be analysed.

WhatsApp and Facebook, represented by senior advocates Kapil Sibal and Mukul Rohatgi, told the court that the plea was not maintainable and many of the issues raised in it were without any foundation. They further told the court that private chat messages between family and friends would remain encrypted and cannot be stored by WhatsApp and this position would not change under the new policy.

The change in policy would only affect the business chats on WhatsApp, they said.

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Facebook Now Reportedly Accused of Wrongdoing by Another Whistleblower

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 23 October 2021

A former Facebook worker reportedly told US authorities Friday the platform has put profits before stopping problematic content, weeks after another whistleblower helped stoke the firm’s latest crisis with similar claims. The unnamed new whistleblower filed a complaint with US financial regulator Securities and Exchange Commission that could add to the company’s distress, said a Washington Post report.

Facebook has faced a storm of criticism over the past month after former employee Frances Haugen leaked internal studies showing the company knew of potential harm stoked by its sites, prompting US lawmakers’ to renew a push for regulation.

In the SEC complaint, the new whistleblower recounts alleged statements from 2017, when the company was deciding how to handle the controversy related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

“It will be a flash in the pan. Some legislators will get pissy. And then in a few weeks they will move onto something else. Meanwhile we are printing money in the basement, and we are fine,” Tucker Bounds, a member of Facebook’s communications team, was quoted in the complaint as saying, The Washington Post reported.

The second whistleblower signed the complaint on October 13, a week after Haugen’s scathing testimony before a Senate panel, according to the report.

Haugen told lawmakers that Facebook put profits over safety, which led her to leak reams of internal company studies that underpinned a damning Wall Street Journal series.

The Washington Post reported the new whistleblowers SEC filing claims the social media giant’s managers routinely undermined efforts to combat misinformation and other problematic content for fear of angering then US president Donald Trump or for turning off the users who are key to profits.

Erin McPike, a Facebook spokeswoman, said the article was “beneath the Washington Post, which during the last five years would only report stories after deep reporting with corroborating sources.”

Facebook has faced previous firestorms of controversy, but that has not translated into substantial new US legislation to regulate social media.

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WhatsApp, Facebook Monetise Users’ Data, Can’t Claim Privacy Protection on Their Behalf, Says Government

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By Press Trust of India | Updated: 23 October 2021

The Centre has defended in the Delhi High Court the legal validity of its new IT rule requiring messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, to “trace” the first originator of the information, saying that the law empowers it to expect such entities to create safe cyberspace and counter illegal content either themselves or by assisting the law enforcement agencies.

The Centre said that Section 87 of the Information Technology Act gave it the power to formulate Rule 4(2) of the Intermediary Rules – which mandates a significant social media intermediary to enable the identification of the first originator of information in “legitimate state interest” of curbing the menace of fake news and offences concerning national security and public order as well as women and children.

In its affidavit filed in response to WhatsApp’s challenge to the rule on the ground that breaking the encryption invades its users’ privacy, the Centre has claimed that platforms “monetise users’ information for business/ commercial purposes are not legally entitled to claim that it protects privacy”.

“Petitioners (WhatsApp and Facebook), being multi-billion dollar enterprises, almost singularly on the basis of mining, owning and storing the private data of natural persons across the world and thereafter monetising the same, cannot claim any representative privacy right on behalf of the natural persons using the platform,” said the affidavit filed by Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

“WhatsApp collects users’ personal information and shares it with Facebook and third-party entities for business/commercial purposes (WhatsApp’s privacy policy of 2016 and its 2021 update). In fact, the regulators of various countries dearly hold that Facebook should be fixed with accountability for its services and data management practices,” it added.

The Centre said reasons regarding technical difficulties cannot be an excuse to refuse compliance to the law of the land and if a platform does not have the means to trace the “first originator” without breaking the encryption then it is the platform which “ought to develop such mechanism” in larger public duty.

“The Rule does not contemplate the platforms breaking the end-to-end encryption. The Rule only contemplates the platform to provide the details of the first originator by any means or mechanism available with the platform. If the platform does not have such means, the platform ought to develop such mechanism considering the platforms widespread prevalence and the larger public duty,” the affidavit said.

The Centre said “if the intermediary is not able to prevent or detect the criminal activities happening on its platform, then the problem lies in the platform’s architecture and the platform must rectify their architecture and not expect the change of legislation. Reasons regarding ‘technical difficulties’ cannot be an excuse to refuse compliance to the law of the land.”

In August, a bench headed by Chief Justice DN Patel had sought the Centre’s stand on WhatsApp petition challenging new rule on the ground it violates the right to privacy and is unconstitutional.
WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook has also mounted a similar challenge to the rule.

In its plea, WhatsApp had said that the traceability requirement forced it “break end-to-end encryption” and thus infringe upon the fundamental rights to privacy and free speech of the hundreds of millions of citizens using its platform to communicate privately and securely.

The Centre, in its response, has said that the petition by WhatsApp is not maintainable as a challenge to the constitutionality of any Indian law is not maintainable at the instance of a foreign commercial entity.

It further claimed that Rule 4(2) is an “embodiment of competing rights of citizens of India” and aims to preserve the “rights of vulnerable citizens within the cyberspace who can be or are victims of cyber-crime”.

The Centre said there are checks and balances to ensure that the rule is not misused or invoked in cases where other less intrusive means are effective in identifying the originator of the information.

The identification of the first originator pertains only to viral content relating to heinous crimes, as specified in the rule, and not identifying all users or citizens, it said.

“If the IT Rules 2021 are not implemented the law enforcement agencies will have difficulty in tracing the origin of fake messages and such messages will percolate in other platforms thereby disturbing peace and harmony in the society further leading to public order issues,” the affidavit said.

The Centre has also said that in case of any legal proceeding having any message on the platform as evidence, WhatsApp would lose the defence of ‘intermediary protection’ but it “does not mean that WhatsApp will be held guilty and its officials would be legally responsible”.

“The courts can include WhatsApp as a respondent and consider ‘Contributory Negligence’ and ‘Vicarious liability on WhatsApp and its executives’ (under Section 85). Such liabilities will fructify only when such a case comes up and WhatsApp is named as an entity that it is sufficiently proved that it has contributed to the commission of the crime,” it added.

The centre also said that the Supreme Court itself had asked the Central government to “take all the steps necessary to identify persons who create and circulate electronic information” about certain offences such as sexual abuse.

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Facebook’s Oversight Board Says Company Not ‘Fully Forthcoming’ on How It Deals With High-Profile Users

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By Reuters | Updated: 22 October 2021

Facebook’s independent oversight board demanded more transparency from the social media giant on Thursday, saying the company was not “fully forthcoming” on how it deals with certain high-profile user accounts.

The comments follow a Wall Street Journal report last month that said millions of Facebook accounts belonging to celebrities, politicians, and other high-profile users were exempted from some internal checks.

The board said that Facebook has not been transparent with the company’s ‘cross-check’ system, an internal program the social media network says is used to double-check enforcement actions against certain users.

“Facebook needs to commit to greater transparency and to treat users fairly,” the board said in a tweet.

In relation to its May decision to uphold the indefinite suspension of former US President Donald Trump’s account after the January 6 riot, the board said when Facebook referred the case, it did not mention the cross-check system until it was asked.

“Given that the referral included a specific policy question about account-level enforcement for political leaders, many of whom the Board believes were covered by cross-check, this omission is not acceptable,” it said.

Facebook, in the form of a policy advisory opinion, has asked the board to review its cross-check system and make recommendations on how it can be changed.

A company spokesperson said the board’s work had been “impactful,” which is why it asked for input into the cross-check system.

Facebook created the board mainly to address criticism over how it handles problematic content and is responsible for independent verdicts on a number of thorny decisions related content moderation.

Going forward, the board will publish quarterly and annual transparency reports to provide assessment on whether its recommendations were implemented.

In its first quarterly report, the board said over half a million Facebook and Instagram users submitted appeals between October 2020 and the end of June 2021, of which more than a third were related to content concerning Facebook’s rules on hate speech.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Facebook’s Name-Change Will Not Deter Lawmaker or Regulatory Scrutiny: Experts

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By Reuters | Updated: 21 October 2021

Renaming Facebook is unlikely to enable the tech giant to distance itself from regulatory and public scrutiny around the potential harms caused by its social media apps, marketing and branding experts told Reuters. Tech publication The Verge reported on Tuesday that the California-based firm is planning to change its corporate branding to reflect that as well as owning the social media platform that made it a global household name, it also now includes other thriving businesses like Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus.

The company declined to comment regarding the report on the possible rebranding. It did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.

Facebook is battling intense scrutiny after a whistleblower leaked thousands of internal documents that showed it contributed to increased polarisation online when it made changes to its content algorithm, failed to take steps to reduce vaccine hesitancy, and was aware that popular social media app Instagram harmed the mental health of teenage girls.

The US Senate held a hearing earlier this month into the effect of Instagram on young users.

“Legislators and politicians are sufficiently smart to not be fooled by a rebranding,” said James Cordwell, an internet analyst at Atlantic Equities.

Renaming can be an effective strategy to allow subsidiary brands to maintain their own reputations, said Marisa Mulvihill, head of brand and activation at Prophet, a branding and marketing consultancy. But the media and regulators “are not going to stop investigating or creating reforms just because you rebranded,” she added.

The new parent company name could reflect Facebook’s focus on building the ‘metaverse,’ The Verge reported, referring to a proposed digital world where people can use different devices to move and communicate in a virtual environment.

It could also prevent a possible negative perception around the Facebook name from affecting WhatsApp, the messaging app used by nearly 2 billion people globally, and Oculus, its virtual reality brand, experts said.

According to Prophet’s annual ranking, Facebook’s brand relevance to US consumers has dropped “precipitously” over the past several years, Mulvihill said.

“What you don’t want is for that to proliferate and have a negative halo effect on other parts of your business,” said Deborah Stafford-Watson, head of strategy at brand consultancy firm Elmwood.

Other major companies have taken similar steps. Google reorganised under a holding company called Alphabet in 2015, as the company best known for internet searches increasingly pursued ambitions like autonomous driving technology.

In 2003, cigarette seller Philip Morris rebranded itself as Altria, at a time when the company owned Kraft Foods. It later spun off the food division.

While the move to rebrand as Altria didn’t remove the negative connotations of tobacco from the cigarette brands itself, it did help to limit the effects on Kraft, Mulvihill said.

Facebook will continue to confront the same pressures even after a rebrand, the experts said.

“I don’t think it’s going to help Facebook mitigate regulators’ scrutiny or the general public’s skepticism, if not distrust,” said Natasha Jen, a partner at Pentagram, a design studio that does advertising and communication work. “Trust is something you need to earn.”

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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Facebook Announces 10,000 EU Jobs to Build ‘Metaverse’

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By Agence France-Presse | Updated: 18 October 2021

Facebook on Monday announced plans to hire 10,000 people in the European Union to build the metaverse, a virtual reality version of the Internet that the tech giant sees as the future.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been a leading voice in Silicon Valley hype around the idea of the metaverse, which would blur the lines between the physical world and the digital one.

The technology might, for example, allow someone to don virtual reality glasses that make it feel as if they’re face-to-face with a friend – when in fact they are thousands of miles apart and connected via the Internet.

“The metaverse has the potential to help unlock access to new creative, social, and economic opportunities. And Europeans will be shaping it right from the start,” Facebook said in a blog post.

“Today, we are announcing a plan to create 10,000 new high skilled jobs within the European Union (EU) over the next five years.”

The European hires will include “highly specialised engineers”, but the company otherwise gave few details of its plans for the new metaverse team.

“The EU has a number of advantages that make it a great place for tech companies to invest – a large consumer market, first class universities and, crucially, top quality talent,” the blog post said.

Distraction from bad news?
The announcement comes as Facebook grapples with the fallout of a damaging scandal, major outages of its services, and rising calls for regulation to curb its vast influence.

The company has faced a storm of criticism over the past month after former employee Frances Haugen leaked internal studies showing Facebook knew its sites could be harmful to young people’s mental health.

The Washington Post last month suggested that Facebook’s interest in the metaverse is “part of a broader push to rehabilitate the company’s reputation with policymakers and reposition Facebook to shape the regulation of next-wave Internet technologies”.

But Zuckerberg also appears to be a genuine evangelist for the advent of the metaverse era, predicting in July that Facebook will transition from “primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company” over the next five years.

Facebook bought Oculus, a company that makes virtual reality headsets, for $2 billion (roughly Rs. 15,050 crores) in 2014 and has since been developing Horizon, a digital world where people can interact using VR technology.

In August, it unveiled Horizon Workrooms, a feature where co-workers wearing VR headsets can hold meetings in a virtual room where they all appear as cartoonish 3D versions of themselves.

Blurring the lines

Metaverse enthusiasts point out that the Internet is already starting to blur the lines between virtual experiences and “real” ones.

Stars such as pop diva Ariana Grande and the rapper Travis Scott have performed for huge audiences, watching at home, via the hit video game Fortnite.

In Decentraland, another online platform widely seen as a forerunner to the metaverse, you can already get a job as a croupier in its virtual casino.

“No one company will own and operate the metaverse. Like the Internet, its key feature will be its openness and interoperability,” Facebook said in its blog post.

It is not the only company pouring millions into developing the technology that could turn a fully-fledged version of the metaverse into reality.

Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite, announced earlier this year that it had raised $1 billion (roughly Rs. 7,520 crores) in new funding, with some of that money set to support its vision of the metaverse.

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Twitter to Sell Mobile Advertisement Unit MoPub for $1 Billion

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By Reuters | Updated: 7 October 2021

Twitter said it has agreed to sell mobile advertisement company MoPub to AppLovin for $1.05 billion (roughly Rs. 7,850 crores) in cash, as the microblogging platform looks to focus more on advertisements on its own app and website.

MoPub, which generated about $188 million (roughly Rs. 1,400 crores) in annual revenue for Twitter last year, allows companies to keep track of ad inventory in real time, similar to Google’s DoubleClick.

“The sale of MoPub positions us to concentrate more of our efforts on the massive potential for advertisements on our website and in our apps,” Twitter Chief Financial Officer Ned Segal said.

Twitter said on Wednesday it will focus on its core business by accelerating development of new products and features to achieve its goal of doubling its revenue in 2023 to $7.5 billion (roughly Rs. 56,090 crores).

The MoPub deal comes months after Apple updated its mobile operating system that powers iPhone handsets and iPad devices to make it hard for digital advertisers, including social media platforms and mobile game developers, to track users on Apple mobile devices.

The sale will allow Twitter to invest in “the core products that position it for long-term growth,” Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey said on Wednesday.

The social media company bought MoPub for nearly $350 million (roughly Rs. 2,620 crores) in 2013.

Twitter has made a series of deals for privately held tech firms this year, including podcast app Breaker and email newsletter startup Revue, as it looks to reach its 2023 revenue goal.

The sale to AppLovin was unanimously approved by Twitter’s board.

AppLovin, which recently went public in April, is a mobile gaming company with a portfolio that includes more than 200 free-to-play mobile games, such as Word Connect, Slap Kings, and Bingo Story.

The company’s shares were up 9 percent at $84 (roughly Rs. 6,280) in extended trading, while Twitter rose 2 percent to $62.57 (roughly Rs. 4,680).

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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