August was a busy month for privacy in India. A 9-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court unanimously upheld privacy as a Fundamental Right for Indians. Meanwhile a government directive asked smartphone makers to share how they ensured mobile data safety. Caught in the cross-hairs is a technology company that has internally debated for long that “India should not have a privacy bill”. Yes, Facebook is watching the privacy debate unfold with some trepidation.
The trepidation began building 18 months ago when it suffered a very public setback in the net neutrality debate, involving its Free Basics programme. After Free Basics was effectively banned, Facebook retreated into the shadows but since then has been quietly ramping up its public policy activities. Its quietly unstated goal is to become as influential in the tech policy discourse in India as it is in the United States.
Facebook’s public policy thrust has been largely focused on personnel and programmes—two fundamental aspects it believes can help achieve this ambition. With upwards of 15 people, it has built one of the largest policy teams among technology companies in the country. Most of its hires have happened in the last 12 months.
The Right to Privacy verdict could directly impact a case in the Supreme Court which involves WhatsApp, Facebook’s blockbuster messenger app, and its sharing of user data. Facebook’s arguments in the matter broadly contested that the Right to Privacy, as a Fundamental Right, could apply only to the government and not to private companies. And that in any case, its users freely agree to enter into a contract with Facebook. Meaning, they agree to give their personal data to the company.
The WhatsApp case, the next hearing of which is scheduled for 1 September, holds wide-ranging ramifications for the future of an information economy and could redefine what constitutes online privacy. “They’re clearly concerned about being targeted by regulators should things go differently in the WhatsApp case,” says a New Delhi-based technology policy professional on a condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work.
There are other concerns which Facebook wants to address. Most notably, the Indian government’s recent fears over Chinese smartphone makers and apps potentially stealing user information. Facebook has been airing these concerns in multiple, closed-door meetings with stakeholders including government officials, industry associations, and influential business councils.
Facebook is worried that should the government go after these smartphone manufacturers, it could directly impact their user growth in India. This is because Facebook’s app (or apps) are pre-installed in most Chinese-made smartphones. “They feel that if the government is going after these companies [Chinese phone-makers and apps] right now, it’s only a matter of time before they extend these rules to all apps,” says a New Delhi-based public policy professional, who chose to remain anonymous, in exchange for candour.