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WhatsApp’s new policy rules; CCI finds prima facie ‘Abuse Of Dominance’, orders probe

(Asian News Hub) – In a significant development, the Competition Commission of India on Wednesday ordered a probe into the new privacy policy of WhatsApp, after making a prima facie observation that it was violative of the Competition Act 2000.

‘..the Commission is of the considered opinion that WhatsApp has prima facie contravened the provisions of Section 4 of the Act through its exploitative and exclusionary conduct, in the garb of policy update’, said the order passed by the CCI.

The CCI observed that the privacy policy terms on sharing of personalised data with Facebook companies was ‘neither fully transparent nor based on specific, voluntary consent of users’.

‘On a careful and thoughtful consideration of the matter, the conduct of WhatsApp in sharing of users’ personalised data with other Facebook Companies, in a manner that is neither fully transparent nor based on voluntary and specific user consent, appears prima facie unfair to users.

The purpose of such sharing appears to be beyond users’ reasonable and legitimate expectations regarding quality, security and other relevant aspects of the service for which they register on WhatsApp. One of the stated purposes of data sharing viz. targeted ad offerings on other Facebook products rather indicates the intended use being that of building user profiles through cross-linking of data collected across services. Such data concentration may itself raise competition concerns where it is perceived as a competitive advantage’, the 21-page order of the CCI said.

It made a prima facie observation that the policy was an abuse of dominant position resulting in violation of Section 4 of the Competition Act.

‘The impugned conduct of data-sharing by WhatsApp with Facebook apparently amounts to degradation of non-price parameters of competition viz.quality which result in objective detriment to consumers, without any acceptable justification.

Such conduct prima facie amounts to imposition of unfair terms and conditions upon the users of WhatsApp messaging app, in violation of the provisions of Section 4(2)(a)(i) of the Act’.

The anti-trust regulator termed the privacy policy terms ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ terms set by a dominant messaging platform, without providing much information to the users, and observed that the policy prima facie appeared to be ‘unfair and unreasonable’.

‘..users are required to accept the unilaterally dictated ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ terms by a dominant messaging platform in their entirety, including the data sharing provisions therein, if they wish to avail their service. Such ‘consent’cannot signify voluntary agreement to all the specific processing or use of personalised data,as provided in the present policy.

Users have not been provided with appropriate granular choice, neither upfront nor in the fine prints,to object to or opt-out of specific data sharing terms,which prima facie appear to be unfair and unreasonable for the WhatsApp users’.

The CCI bench comprising Ashok Kumar Gupta(Chairperson), Sangeeta Verma(Member) and Bhagwant Singh Bishnoi(Member) observed that ‘a thorough and detailed investigation is required to ascertain the full extent, scope and impact of data sharing through involuntary consent of users’.

Accordingly, the Commission directed the Director General (‘DG’) to cause an investigation to be made into the matter under the provisions of Section 26(1) of the Act. The Commission also directed the DG to complete the investigation and submit the investigation report within a period of 60days from the receipt of this order.

The Commission has clarified that the observations are preliminary in nature and will not amount to a final expression of opinion on the merits of the case. ‘The DG shall conduct the investigation without being swayed in any manner whatsoever by the observations made herein’, the order added as a caveat.

Notably, the order has been passed in a suo moto case taken by the Commission titled ‘In Re: Updated Terms of Service and Privacy Policy for WhatsApp Users’.

WhatsApp LLC and Facebook Inc were arrayed as opposite parties in the case.

The suo moto case was taken by the Commission on January 19, 2021, based on the reports about the new privacy policy update of the messenger platform.

It is also pertinent to note that the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has taken a stand against the new privacy policy of WhatsApp. In an affidavit filed in the Delhi High Court in response to a PIL challenging the policy, the Centre has urged the Court to restrain WhatsApp from implementing the new policy, pending the passage of the Personal Data Protection Bill.

Abuse of dominance

Section 4 of the Act proscribes abuse of dominance by an entity commanding dominant position in relevant market.

The CCI noted that WhatsApp is dominant in the relevant market for OTT messaging apps through smartphones in India, as was held in an earlier decision.The Commission further noted that the previous privacy policies of WhatsApp dated 25.08.2016 as well as 19.12.2019 provided users an option to choose not to have their WhatsApp account information shared with Facebook.

However, under the latest policy, this choice is no longer available to users.

In this regard, the CCI observed :

‘This(removal of opt-out choice) implies that data of users, including that of those who are not users of any other service within the Facebook family of companies, will now be shared across Facebook Companies.

Simply put, it appears that consent to sharing and integration of user data with other Facebook Companies for a range of purposes including marketing and advertising, has been made a precondition for availing WhatsApp service’.

This ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ policy of WhatsApp requires further examination as to whether it violates the provisions of the Competition Act.

The Commission also took note of the ‘strong lock-in effect’ for users as regards their dependence on WhatsApp for messaging services.

Switching to another platform for users gets difficult and meaningless until all or most of their social contacts also switch to the same other platform. Users wishing to switch would have to convince their contacts to switch and these contacts would have to persuade their other contacts to switch. Thus, while it may be technically feasible to switch, the pronounced network effects of WhatsApp significantly circumscribe the usefulness of the same.

It noted that despite the increased downloads of alternate platforms like Telegram or Signal, the user base of WhatsApp has not suffered significant loss.

The Commission further opined that users, as owners of their personalised data, are entitled to be informed about the extent, scope and precise purpose of sharing of such data by WhatsApp with other Facebook Companies.

However, it appears from the Privacy Policy as well as Terms of Service (including the FAQs published by WhatsApp), that many of the information categories described therein are too ‘broad, vague and unintelligible’.

For instance, information on how users ‘interact with others (including businesses)’is not clearly defined,what would constitute ‘service-related information’, ‘mobile device information’, ‘payments or business features’, etc.are also undefined. At numerous places in the policy, while illustrating the data to be collected, the list is indicative and not exhaustive due to usage of words like ‘includes’, ‘such as’, ‘For example’, etc., which suggests that the scope of sharing may extend beyond the information categories that have been expressly mentioned in the policy.

‘Such opacity, vagueness, open-endedness and incomplete disclosures hide the actual data cost that a user incurs for availing WhatsApp services. It is also not clear from the policy whether the historical data of users would also be shared with Facebook Companies and whether data would be shared in respect of those WhatsApp users also who are not present on other apps of Facebook i.e.,Facebook, Instagram, etc’, the CCI said in the order.

With Agencies

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Second Covid wave cases are less severe than first: ICMR

(Asian News Hub) – Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) chief Dr Balram Bhargava on Monday said the Covid cases in the second wave of Covid 19 are less severe than the first one.

“If you see the symptoms, severity is very less this time. In this wave, we have witnessed more cases of breathlessness while in the last wave, symptoms like dry cough, joint pain, headaches were more,” news agency ANI cited Bharagava as saying.

He said that in the present wave there are more cases of breathlessness while in the last wave, symptoms like dry cough, joint pain, headaches were more.

The ICMR chief also said that the RT-PCR is a gold standard test that measures two or more genes in the body, and there is no chance of it missing the detection of a Covid-19 mutant through the test.

“I would like to emphasise that the RT-PCR test that we are utilising, they measure two or more genes and they never miss a test… We have always used two or more genes for testing and therefore missing is absolutely impossible… It can find any kind of mutant because it measures two or more genes at different sites,” he said.

It is not yet clear if the surge in the spread of infections is the result of the double mutant found in India or the higher rate of transmissibility, he added.

Explaining the present wave, Dr Bhargava said that only a marginally high proportion of Covd-19 patients are of younger age and that the average of patients in the first wave was 50 years and in this wave, it is 49 years. The older population continues to be more vulnerable and are admitted in the hospital in the current wave. He pointed out that in both the waves, 70% of infected patients were above 40 years.

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Link claiming to change Whatsapp in Pink is a virus, can hack mobile phone: Cyber experts

(Asian News Hub) – Cyber experts have warned users from falling into the prey of a virus link which claims to turn Whatsapp in pink colour and comes with new features.

According to cyber security experts, clicking on the link claiming to be an official update from Whatsapp will hack users phone and they may lose access to their Whatsapp.

“Beware of WhatsApp Pink!! A Virus is being spread in whatsapp groups with an APK download link. Don”t click any link with the name of #WhatsappPink. Complete access to your phone will be lost,” cyber security expert Rajshekhar Rajaharia posted on social media platforms.

Several Whatsapp users were seen sharing the malicious link.

Cyber intelligence firm Voyager Infosec director Jiten Jain said that users are strictly advised never to install any APK or mobile app other than those available on official App store of Google or Apple.

“Such malicious apps can be used to compromise your phone and steal personal data like photos, sms, contacts etc. Keyboard based malwares can be used to track everything you type. It can be used to capture and steal banking passwords. The current case of Pink Whatsapp or Whatsapp Gold is also a case of malware impersonating as fake whatsapp feature apps,” Jain said.

When contacted, Whatsapp said, “Anyone can get an unusual, uncharacteristic or suspicious message on any service, including email, and anytime that happens we strongly encourage everyone to use caution before responding or engaging. On WhatsApp in particular, we also recommend that people use the tools that we provide within the app to send us a report, report a contact or block contact.”


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COVID-19: India has emerged as the new epicentre of the global pandemic

Hospitals on the brink, thousands dying on a daily basis, and new variants spreading rapidly across the country – India has emerged as the new epicentre of the global pandemic

(Asian News Hub) – India was hit hard by coronavirus last year, recording one the highest caseloads in the world alongside the US and Brazil. But numbers started declining rapidly after last summer and by January this year, as vaccines started to roll out, the health minister proclaimed the country had reached the end of the pandemic.

But after months with few restrictions, and just as life was starting to look normal again, cases have suddenly exploded, with a tsunami of infections sweeping the country and putting ICUs into what doctors have called a “war-like” situation.

With many other nations making rapid progress on vaccinations, the country is now the global epicentre for the disease, while concerns are mounting about the new variants involved. Doctors in the Indian states facing the worst pressure paint a grim picture, describing a chaotic and overwhelming intake of desperately sick patients.

Loved ones wailing outside hospitals, ambulances queued up with patients, crematoria and graveyards drowning in dead bodies, failed resuscitations and families scrambling for beds, plasma, and even basic medical supplies such as oxygen, stretchers and ventilators.

“Patients are dying suddenly of hypoxia. There are more patients here than the doctors could attend and all the monitoring equipment has been exhausted. We are suffering,” a resident doctor from Mumbai’s state-run Sion hospital tells The Independent, on condition of anonymity.

Maharashtra, the state where Mumbai is located, has for several weeks been painted as an outlier in terms of the new outbreak, but the situation is now no better in the capital Delhi, where Dr Atul Gogoi of Sir Ganga Ram Hospital says ICU beds and even general wards are out of capacity. He says the situation is becoming increasingly difficult with each passing day.

Having to remain “aloof” during this “war-like” fight against the disease is taking its toll, he says. “We are worn out physically as the workload is constantly increasing, [but also] mentally as we regularly deal with emotional breakdowns of elderly people.”

India’s outbreak is worse now than it was at any point last year, with the country registering a series of grim milestones in the past few weeks. As well as overtaking Brazil in total caseload, the country has recorded daily spikes of more than 200,000 new infections over a 48-hour period in the last week.

While there remains insufficient data to attribute the new wave to any one cause, scientists say an indigenous variant of the virus called B.1.617 is likely to be fuelling the flames, coupled with a fatigue with safety precautions that has seen a return to crowding and a reluctance to wear masks across the country.

It may be that multiple more infectious variants are at play here. Testing has shown the presence of the UK’s B.1.1.7, South Africa’s B.1.351 and Brazil’s P1 spreading among the population. These variants have been found in Maharashtra, Punjab, Kerala, Delhi, and Karnataka states, which between them contribute a high proportion of new cases.

However, the greatest concerns swirl around India’s B.1.617, which has been dubbed the “double mutant” variant in media reports, although it actually has 15 mutations from the original virus. This is because it carries two specific and concerning mutations in its spike protein that have cropped up elsewhere during the pandemic – known as E484Q and L452R. It is the first time that these genetic changes have evolved together in a single variant.

With inputs from Independent

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