The WhatsApp nation
In an era of relentless privatization, nationalization has become a bad word. It is synonymous with populism — Indira Gandhi’s bank nationalization drive — economic failure — the continuing misery of Air India — and the spectre of totalitarianism — the impending takeover of Alibaba by the Chinese State. But instances of nationalizing successful private companies for extraneous, often political, ends have meant that the original logic of nationalization has been lost. Certain companies performing critical public functions must work for the benefit of the public — if they don’t, then governments must step in to the breach. However, as I argue in this piece, this need not necessarily be by taking over ownership and control of the company.
WhatsApp has now confirmed that these changes have been deferred by three months. This deferral is on account of misinformation that has spread in the wake of the changes. In the company’s view, the changes solely pertain to communicating with business accounts. It will use the three months to better communicate their meaning and implication for users. In May, however, once the three months are up, the new policy will still remain a take-it-or-leave-it for users.
As far as the changes themselves are concerned, they appear to be pretty mundane and, ordinarily, should not have set alarm bells ringing. Communications with businesses online, typically all online purchases, involve personal data of the user being shared with the company. A cursory look at an Amazon account, for example, will not only show previous orders but also suggestions made by Amazon on the basis of user search history. Saving searches to improve targeting is no different in substance from processing messages sent by individuals to WhatsApp business accounts.
Despite the mundane nature of the changes, that they have created such a storm can only be explained by the fact that WhatsApp is perceived as performing a public function, even though it is a private corporation. And when such a corporation privileges commercial gain, a combination of dismay and shock is understandable. At its core, WhatsApp provides a service that has become essential to life as we know it. Typically, such services have come to be regulated as public utilities over time. This entails rules that ensure that the corporation works in the interest of its real stakeholders, the people, and not just its shareholders. For a long time, it was thought that the optimal way of ensuring this was by nationalizing it — the State taking over ownership and control of the corporation. But State ownership of WhatsApp is neither necessary nor sufficient to tether the corporation to public benefit. In fact, this would be a remedy that is worse than the disease.
The author is Research Director, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal