Fly on the wall: Data privacy is no new concern, with controversy surrounding some platform every now and then

Data privacy has long been a thorn in the flesh of internet users, especially when it comes to social media platforms.

By Reya Mehrotra

Earlier this month, WhatsApp’s new proposed data privacy policy caused huge uproar. As part of the policy, the messaging platform would have shared commercial user data with parent Facebook. Needless to say, users were enraged and many quickly uninstalled the app, switching to other platforms like Signal and Telegram that claim to offer better privacy-Telegram, in fact, witnessed 9.1 million downloads between January 4 and 17, while Signal recorded 26.4 million downloads from India during the same period.

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After WhatsApp’s announcement, the ministry of electronics and information techWhatsApp, WhatsApp data policy, WhatsApp privacy policy, Facebook, signal, telegraph, nology wrote to the messaging platform citing “grave concerns regarding the implications for the choice and autonomy of Indian citizens” and asking CEO Will Cathcart to withdraw the policy for India. In reply, the messenger app’s spokesperson said that their agenda was just to help businesses grow. However, in the face of continuing criticism and opposition, it extended the deadline for users to accept the policy till May. Data privacy has long been a thorn in the flesh of internet users, especially when it comes to social media platforms.

However, the user dependency on these sites continues to grow, with many using these sites to buy as well as sell — the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, in fact, only made this dependency stronger, helping many businesses to, in fact, stay afloat.

So at a time when there is a huge hue and cry around data privacy in the country, what impact does it have on the end user, especially small businesses that primarily operate through sites like WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook? We spoke to a few such small and medium-sized businesses and startups to understand their concerns and whether the user backlash poses any risks to their businesses.

Owner of Delhi-based eco-fashion label Doodlage
Co-founded by Paras Arora in 2014, Doodlage is a Delhi-based eco-fashion label, which sells through both Instagram and Facebook. It has a strong presence online, with around 59,000 followers on Instagram and 25,000 on Facebook. Talking about how social media platforms help businesses like his survive, he says, “The power of tech has made it easier to do business, giving local brands access to a wider audience across the globe. With advanced AI, a lot of positive innovations are happening across sectors.”

Despite the fact that his business relies on social media, the 32-year-old, however, says no level of invasion should be accepted when it comes to data privacy. “Any invasion without the consent of the consumer is not okay,” says Arora, adding, “We want more transparency on who is using our data.”

Having said that, the benefits of using these apps are too many to reconsider dropping facilitation of businesses through them, he says. “The benefits are more for the brands than the consumers. But in the long term, it is necessary for both to coexist and make it work for a better future. The more understanding and control a user has over their data collection and usage, the more willing they’ll be to share and engage with those who employ it,” says Arora.

Owner of Delhi-based confectionery Gluten Free By Deepika
Delhi-based Deepika Gupta’s venture Gluten Free By Deepika is a one-stop shop for all things gluten-free. From samosas and pizzas to cupcakes, cookies and smoothies, she retails all manner of delectable treats. The 47-year-old’s specialisation, however, are gluten-free cake, which are customised according to the needs of a consumer. Customers can place orders on her Instagram and Facebook pages, where she regularly uploads pictures of her fulfilled orders.

Concerns around data privacy do worry her, but not so much as to make her rethink her mode of business. “I do have a problem with my data being shared with other apps for insights without my permission, but that said, I find the apps and these platforms safe for facilitating business both for the sellers, as well as the buyers. Small and medium businesses like mine can benefit as one can connect with a larger consumer base online and expose our products to them,” says Gupta, who has been using these apps to sell home-made food products for some years now and plans to continue doing the same.

Bengaluru-based home baker and founder of Kittu Cakes
It was during the lockdown last year that Bengaluru-based homemaker and new mother Sonam Raje decided to start something of her own. Being a baker, she started selling home-baked cakes through social media platforms.

Luckily for the 32-year-old, Kittu Cakes took off instantly, as her cakes had the appeal of being safe and hygienically made at home. They were an instant hit with the neighbours and gradually orders started pouring in from even faraway places in the city. “I started baking last year and everyone loved the cakes as hygiene was being prioritised,” she says.

All the orders come in through her WhatsApp or Facebook page. The cakes are delivered through delivery apps and she receives payment either in advance or post delivery through payment apps.

For Raje, social media has been a boon and she doesn’t worry much about data privacy. “I have heard about the WhatsApp and Facebook data privacy controversies, but these platforms have helped me build my startup,” she shrugs.

Patiala-based social media entrepreneur
Another entrepreneur who started her business during the lockdown last year is Patiala-based Kanupriya Jalota, who jumped on to the social e-commerce bandwagon when she was stuck at home. She connected with her family, friends and relatives to sell accessories, footwear, home decor products and clothing for men and women through her WhatsApp and Facebook. The products are sourced from small vendors near her place or those selling online. This way, their products reach a broader consumer base, while she gets to keep a small share of the profit.

The 29-year-old promotes and sells the products by putting them on her WhatsApp groups created especially for this purpose. Once an order is placed, the vendor ships the product directly to the buyer. Payment is done online. “I started my business last year while at home and connected with people through WhatsApp and Facebook. I have made WhatsApp groups with friends and relatives and post my products on these groups named Priya Fashion & Decor and Priya Attire,” she says.

Jalota saw good scope in social commerce during the lockdown as everyone was buying online and marketplaces remained closed or witnessed low footfall. “Buying online is the trend of the hour and so businesses online are blooming,” she says, adding, “I believe the benefit of using these apps for businesses is for both the sellers and the portals themselves. They get consumer insights and we get our livelihood.” But does she fear her business will get affected because of the recent data privacy controversy? “I don’t fear any risks to my business as WhatsApp and Facebook have millions of users and not all of them are going to stop using them. Any upheaval is temporary. I don’t think there will be any major impact as such. WhatsApp is a comfort app for many who don’t even understand what the issue is all about. It is the only medium for many to stay connected and any change will take a long time,” says Jalota.

Friends and co-founders of lifestyle wellness brand BodyCafe
College friends Tanushree Ishaani D and Pooja Karegoudar turned entrepreneurs with their lifestyle wellness brand BodyCafe in 2016. As a new startup, they invested in product shoots and put up attractive images of their merchandise on their pages on Instagram and Facebook. Soon, their products started selling far and wide through social media. As a brand, says Hyderabad-based Ishaani (left in pic), BodyCafe does receive some basic personal information based on users’ interaction with the website, but it is only used to enhance user experience and for measuring website performance. “Privacy invasion is never okay. So we never sell the data we collect or use it for purposes that may be deemed unethical,” she clarifies.

Despite being a flourishing startup on social media, concerns around data privacy scare them, too, she says. “Data privacy must be an important concern for all businesses. The grey area is about how the data is used. While it helps the business understand users and enables them to give the best experience, any use beyond that should be thoroughly thought through-especially if the data is going to be shared with third parties like advertising companies. Hence, it becomes important to let users know how their data is shared with others and to provide them with a choice to opt out,” says Ishaani.

Talking about the WhatsApp controversy, she says, “It was always clear that Facebook would want to collect data from users on all their platforms. It is hard to predict the impact of the recent news because the majority of people would choose to stick with the convenience that the online platforms give them. While consumer education and awareness is important, the onus is on the governments to safeguard the people from any misuse of their data,” she says, adding, “Technology has always been a double-edged sword. What is important is for those who wield it to use it ethically and to improve people’s lives.”

Founder of Gurugram-based online art supply store Stationery Plug
Online art supply store Stationery Plug by Gurugram-based Monika Satija started during the lockdown in July on Instagram and, in no time, grew to a community of around 5,000 people who share an interest in art. The home-grown store provides doorstep delivery across India of all essential art supplies ranging from canvas to paints. “We have 50-plus Indian and international art supply brands under our roof. Not just products, we also provide recommendations to artists beginning their journey. We have also recently entered into the space of art workshops with experienced trainers,” shares the 47-year-old, adding that they are currently working on their website and plan to launch it this year.

Thanks to platforms like WhatsApp and Instagram, she says, ease of doing business has increased greatly. However, she is aware that not all of them are equally trustworthy. “We are assured that Instagram does not sell its data. However, policies regarding access to the camera and communication do sound concerning and, hence, our team takes preventive measures to keep our consumers’ data safe. The shipping address and personal details are gathered via Google forms and payment is collected via UPI platforms, thus ensuring zero data leakage,” she asserts.

Through Instagram, the startup reached 50,000 relevant accounts in the past six months, which would have been difficult otherwise, she confesses. “The ease of creating content and features like hashtags, tagging and repost have helped us reach potential leads and plan our business strategy in line with the demographic info of our audience. The performance metrics allow us to understand which product is grabbing more attention,” she explains.

‘Privacy a concern but can’t live without tech’

Bengaluru-based media professional Akhila Damodaran doesn’t understand the fuss over WhatsApp’s proposed data privacy policy. “Our privacy has been breached with our data being compromised already. Several apps, including music and food delivery apps, need permission to your phone logs and text messages. And if you don’t give access, they don’t work. We are left with no choice but to accept these terms. So I do not understand why there’s so much fuss about WhatsApp when all our information is out there already. There’s no privacy at all and you can’t help it. In the digital world, one can neither stop using apps nor phones,” she says.

Not surprisingly, Damodaran says, she will continue using these apps as she did before. “I am, of course, not happy about it, but I feel helpless,” she says.

Unlike her, though, there are many who won’t stand for their data being compromised. Delhi-based civil engineer Aditi Singh is one of them. “If there is a risk of breach, I would not continue with the existing platform and will prefer to switch over to any other reliable and safe platform. It does not matter whether the platform is small or big, but that our data is secure and safe. For now, though, I will continue to use WhatsApp and Facebook to connect with people and shop online,” she says.

Some users are confident that the messaging platform won’t let them down. Agra-based education counsellor Alina Harun believes that if there are any loopholes the company will work on it. “The company has given official statements as well and any loophole from their end would eventually reflect on their image. So I think they will work on improving user privacy and safety. As for me, I often shop online and my official chats are facilitated through WhatsApp, so that will continue for sure,” she says.

Bengaluru-based communications consultant Kumaran Prabhakar, however, isn’t waiting around for that and has already switched to Signal. “Invasion in terms of asking permissions for certain information to run the app is okay. But if one wants to manage user data for reasons which are not completely known to the consumer, that’s not okay,” he asserts.

Noida-based pilot instructor Bhumika Saberwal, too, is considering switching to Signal, which self-destructs messages and has end-to-end encryption, but doesn’t have any plans to discontinue the use of Facebook, WhatsApp or any other shopping apps right away.

For some like Lucknow-based fashion influencer Ananya Walia, social media is their livelihood. With 20,000 followers on Instagram, Walia earns through brand promotions. And so, Walia and a number of young influencers today stand by social media despite the numerous concerns. “I will definitely continue using the apps as I have a considerable number of followers. I do have a problem with my data being shared for consumer insights without consent, but then it all works fine unless I am not being impacted directly in a negative way,” she offers.

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