Observer Desk

Posted on 21.07.17 by

Whatsapp-Facebook Privacy Case – Day 3 Arguments

Karmanya Singh Sareen vs. Union of India (SLP (C) No. 804/2017) will decide if Whatsapp’s data sharing deal with Facebook violates the user’s right to privacy. Today, a 5-Judge Bench, consisting of Justices Dipak Misra, A. K Sikri, Amitava Roy, A. M. Khanvilkar and M. M. Shantagoudar, partly heard arguments on maintainability of the case.

Mr. Harish Salve, representing the petitioners, began by arguing that the writ is maintainable as the relief is sought against the State. Irrespective of whether privacy is a fundamental right, a common law right to privacy exists. Hence, the State must regulate data sharing and enact legislation to protect privacy rights. Just as a courier delivery person cannot open the sender’s letter and read it merely by virtue of being a service provider, the same logic must apply to Whatsapp and Facebook. He concluded that the State must legislate to curb their quasi-monopoly and the Court must clarify the broad parameters of such regulation.

Mr. Arvind Datar, representing Facebook, began by clarifying that although Facebook has acquired Whatsapp, ‘not a single comma or word’ has been shared between them so far, or will be shared in the future. Mr. Sibal, representing Whatsapp, went further and said that he is ready to have a statement recorded to that effect. They argued that other services should also be included as Respondents to get a ‘complete picture’ to design a regulatory frameworks. Other apps have pop-ups requesting access to user contacts yet there are no complaints against them. Even the Government should be included as Respondents, as the ‘Bhim’ Application accesses user data. Justice Misra responded that the case cannot be thrown out merely on the ground that similar persons are not made parties. Mr. Sibal agreed, but cautioned that not including other companies would open up a Pandora’s Box. Moreover, it is difficult to function in an ambiguous atmosphere while a regulatory regime is being shaped. When Mr. Datar suggested that a regulatory regime already exists, Justice Misra insisted that it was inadequate as it does not recognize that service providers have a public duty towards their users, and free access cannot curtail their privacy.

Mr. Narsimha, Additional Solicitor General, affirmed that the Government is ready to implement a workable regulatory regime. If it the Government fails to do so, the Court can pass an order it thinks fit. He insisted, however, that the Petitioners must make specific substantive arguments outlining the regulatory regime.

Mr. Salve referred to Modern Dental College to stress on the need for regulation and oversight of large corporations especially as other countries have taken steps against data sharing by Whatsapp. Unregulated access to and sharing of user data would allow Whatsapp to use the metadata from conversation between a psychiatric patient and their doctor to develop profiles of all parties involved. Even if other service providers access and share user data, it does not make the practice right. Under current regulations, Internet Service Providers cannot use data on their networks with abandon and compromise safety.

Mr. Salve referred to Prof Laurence Tribe on different manifestations of State power. A teacher raising a hand to stop traffic while her students cross the road exercises public power. Similarly telecom companies exercise public power even if they are motivated by commercial purposes. Entities and companies may have commercial motivations, but if they provide a public service, they can and must be regulated.

Mr. Salve insisted that the myth of a private contract needs to be attacked when it affects constitutional rights under Articles 14, 19, 21, 24 and 25 of the Constitution. Justice Misra agreed that contracts with unconscionable terms violate Article 14. He wondered whether it was acceptable to have contractual clauses that take away choice and impair human dignity. The ASG agreed that data is integral to one’s personality and must be protected under Article 21. If a contractual provision impinges on data, it impinges on the right to life.

Mr. Sibal suggested that the Court may be approached when there is misuse of data, but could one ask for a preemptive remedy against the possibility of misuse. Justice Misra responded that if the privacy policy of Whatsapp violates Article 14, then it is immaterial whether injury has been suffered or not.

Arguments concluded with the matter being posted on 6th September 2017 after the 9 Judge Constitution Bench in the Aadhaar case finishes proceedings.


Submissions on behalf of Facebook Inc.

Counter Affidavit filed by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India

Counter Affidavit filed by Facebook India

Counter Affidavit filed by Facebook Inc.

Counter Affidavit filed by the Department of Telecommunications, Ministry of Communication

Counter Affidavit filed by Whatsapp Inc.

Submissions filed by Karmanya Singh Sareen and Shreya Sethi


(This post relies on contributions from Ms. Nidhi Khanna)


Thank you for your feedback!