After having revised its privacy policies to let it exchange some consumer data with parent Facebook and other community businesses, WhatsApp is fighting mistrust internationally, and the backlash risks thwarting its aspirations in its largest market, India.
Though WhatsApp has yet to see mass uninstallations of its app in India, consumers concerned with privacy are gradually installing competing applications such as Signal and Telegram, research firms claim, moving them higher on the download charts and for the first time bringing those apps ahead of their ubiquitous rival in India.
The reaction in India, where 400 million people exchange more WhatsApp messages than anywhere in the world, has prompted the messaging app in at least 10 English and Hindi newspapers to launch an advertisement campaign costing tens of millions of rupees this week.
In one newspaper announcement, “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA,” WhatsApp said.
WhatsApp referred Reuters to its published privacy declarations when asked for comment.
Similar to one that happened two years ago when it faced backlash in India for not doing enough to curb misinformation, the media campaign highlights the severity of the crisis for the most common communications network in the world.
Facebook and WhatsApp parents have bet big on India and their hopes could be dented by some consumer grumbling.
Facebook spent $5.7 billion in the Indian oil-to-tech company Reliance’s digital unit last year, the social media giant’s largest acquisition since the $22 billion WhatsApp investment in 2014.
A large part of India’s investment depends on a WhatsApp and Reliance initiative to make digital transactions for around 30 million owners of mom-and-pop shops.
When WhatsApp said on January 4 that it reserved the right to share certain user information, including location and phone number, with Facebook and its units such as Instagram and Messenger, users around the world were alarmed.
According to internet analytics company Top10VPN, Signal was the most downloaded free software in India on both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, outpacing WhatsApp.
According to analytics company Sensor Tower, signal downloads in India soared to 7,100,000 between Jan 5 and Jan 12, from around 15,000 days ago. Downloads from Telegram grew 40 percent while downloads from WhatsApp dropped 30pc in the period.
Manish Khatri, a smartphone seller based in Mumbai, said several of his clients were wondering if WhatsApp could read their messages.
Indian startups were able to respond, too.
“WhatsApp/Facebook is abusing their monopoly here in India and taking away the privacy of millions of users for granted,” Vijay Shekhar Sharma, chief executive of Alibaba-backed Fintech Paytm, said on Twitter.
We need to switch on to @signalapp NOW. It’s up to us to victimise or condemn those moves.
Another digital payments group, MobiKwik, had been using WhatsApp for business contact, but it planned to move to Google and Signal, its boss said.
MobiKwik CEO Bipin Preet Singh told Reuters, “I’m making myself unavailable on WhatsApp and I’ve advised senior executives to do the same.”
The payment system of WhatsApp in India competes with the likes of Paytm and MobiKwik, as well as Google Pay and PhonePe of Walmart.