Public Policy

“What? You must be kidding. There’s gotta be a mistake. This can’t happen.”

Though I could not hear what had been said as the speaker had plugged the headphone wire into his mobile and the other end in his ear, I could sense that my one-seat-away-on-account-of-social-distancing neighbour in the Delhi metro coach was beginning to get excited. My Indian ears perked up as another opportunity to pry into someone else’s affairs presented itself.

After a brief gap, when he was apparently listening to the person on the other end of the phone connection, he said, “You mean they are not a non-profit. That is news. Do you know what you are saying? That the sole purpose of their existence is not to selflessly serve people like you and me and that they need to earn money. I am shocked. Why did nobody tell me earlier? I am sure there is a mistake.”

After a few seconds of silence, when the voice on the other end presumably became active, he erupted, “Like hell I will agree with their updated policy. That too for free? That is rich. This is India, my friend, India! Not some first world country where these things are allowed to happen with impunity. There are laws here, OK. Laws. We don’t follow them but we have them. These companies cannot do whatever they feel like. Remember, we live in a society driven by the rules of a free market.”

During the silence that ensued while he was presumably listening to the voice on the other end, I could not help but admire his nationalism.

“Over my dead body! Next, they will ask for permission to use my phone number. Like hell I will give them permission. Do you have any idea what this number is used for? I use this number when sales people in Delhi malls beg me to fill forms with my personal information so that I can stand a chance to win a lottery. This number is the one I register with on online websites that promise to teach you tricks with which one can become rich overnight. It is personal and confidential. How can it be shared with a company whose service I am using.

It was a powerful argument. I could hear the silence on the other end.

“Just what do you mean by that? What if I did not read the T&Cs when I signed up? What if WhatsApp and Facebook already have my personal data and are using it for commercial purposes? Does it mean that whenever they ask me to agree to something, I should do it without protesting on ethical and moral grounds? No means no. I will not agree. I will not sell my soul and self-respect to a monopolistic foreign nouveau imperialist capitalist plutocratic hegemonistic…”

There was a pause. Perhaps for catching breath after the effort of stringing together so many important-sounding words together.

“…company,” he finally found the word to complete the sentence, and submitted to the voice for a few seconds, before standing up and bursting out, “Why should I move to Telegram? Or Signal? Just why? Have I done something wrong? Am I a criminal that I should seek refuge elsewhere? After this call, can you message me the URL for downloading Telegram and Signal?” He was a man of principle.

Though I could guess about the subject of this conversation, the last couple of sentences confirmed it. It was about the recent action by WhatsApp, the messaging App, of asking users to agree to their updated Privacy Policy, or lose access.

“Look, I don’t expect the common man to understand or appreciate. But I am a responsible employee of the Indian government. I can. Do you know that even for official matters I don’t use my official government email ID and instead use my personal gmail account? Even my bosses cannot see what is going on. Beat that for privacy and security.” He had continued with his principled stand.

For the first time I looked at his face. My eyes perhaps betrayed my respect and admiration as he immediately frowned and looked the other way, and, after a brief pause, continued. “What? You don’t know the changes made in the new policy? Even more reason to not agree. These companies are trying to make changes without even asking or telling us. We have to resist.”

After a brief period of “hmm”s and “OK”s, he was on the warpath again. “Let them cancel my account. I don’t care.” He paused, looked up as if in deep thought, as a realisation of the impact slowly dawned.

His voice came out softer. I had to strain my ears to keep up. “Bbb…but how will I communicate with my mates from school receiving and forwarding random messages? More importantly, how will I claim it is so wonderful to be connected again on WhatsApp? We may be connected on Signal or Telegram, but then we cannot claim that it is good to be connected on WhatsApp, isn’t it?” A dispassionate, objective analysis if there was one.

I could sense it was all getting too much for him. His eyes had turned a shade of red while he was still speaking. He could speak and think at the same time, that was certain. He could not take it anymore and started sobbing. “How will I send condolences? How will I wish people on their birthdays and anniversaries? Do you think I have the time and energy to call or personally greet people who I love so dearly? What will happen to my connections if they stop receiving my Good Morning messages with pretty flowers? How will I show my patriotism to my connections? How will I receive and forward messages that I have no clue are fake or real? How will I waste time in meetings? How? How? How?” His plaintive cries rang out in the coach.

He stopped. Everyone in the coach was looking at him. It was perhaps a common issue they were all struggling with at that moment, but he had articulated everyone’s innermost feelings. I realised I was not the only one listening in on this conversation. I wanted to hold him and express my support but the Covid-19 protocol was in operation. I could only watch him while he cried himself out. It seemed to calm him down. He blew into a handkerchief. He was able to speak in a more composed tone after that.

“They have my age? OK.” The voice at the other clearly had been active. “Sex…Music playlist on Prime…OK…Sounds good…Netflix serials I am watching,” he was perhaps repeating what he was hearing on the phone. “Location…Milk delivery time…Blood group…Bank account number…Bank account password…What I had for breakfast today…Breed of my dog…Childrens’ vaccination schedule…Websites searched…Tax returns filed…What? They know my golf handicap…That is not fair…Credit history.”

There was a pause again.

“Is that all? If this is the only data they have, I have no problem in accepting the new policy, whatever it be.”

The voice was perhaps active again as he seemed to nod his head occasionally. “There, what did I tell you? If, as you say, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg has said that they are collecting personal data to improve their services, it must be true. He is a good man. After all, he runs a large company. It must be a non-profit like all large companies. And his sole objective must be to provide us free services and protect our interests. By the way, when are we getting free Tesla cars?”

Without waiting for a response, he added, “And why not? Do we pay for Google? Do we pay for Facebook? Do we pay for WhatsApp? We sign-up without reading the T&Cs and use. Why should we pay for Tesla?” as he got up to get out of the coach.

Everyone in the coach was smiling. Having just accepted the new WhatsApp policy, they were perhaps busy choosing the colour of their free Tesla car.

20 thoughts on “Public Policy

  1. On your latest post you touched on a very important problem in our digital era. All ‘free’ social media like FB, WhatsApp, Twitter, etc. demand that you agree to their service agreement. By pressing the ‘agree’ button you can effortlessly continue to use their services without having to read their lengthy burdensome document. In some cases, they make your task even easier with a simple statement, “By continuing to use our website you have agreed to our policy.” Behind all this is the threat to our privacy. Thank you, Ankur, for today’s thought-provoking story!

    • You are welcome, Peter! I think there should be a law that any business wishing to offer a consumer product or service, cannot have a T&C longer than 500 words. At the same time, I think all streets are two-ways. Users who get used to a free service seem to think it is their right. There will be a cost somewhere.

    • What? Based on an analysis of your phone number, language used in your messaging, sleeping habits, comments on blogs, your annual income and other trivial data, we have put you down for a bright orange. Please change your reading habits if you want a sea green. 🙂

  2. Isn’t that the truth, though it probably usually doesn’t even take so long to arrive at that “give up my rights” decision. “monopolistic foreign nouveau imperialist capitalist plutocratic hegemonistic”–that is precious.

    BTW and completely unrelated to the important topic of your post, I switched to Signal. Then I made everyone I talk to switch. No one cared.

  3. That is an amazingly allegorical presentation of the quandary facing our sentient nation. The crackling humour has yielded a priceless satire on the evolution of the Homo WhatsAppians.

    • There was a time when an ‘open’ postcard, not taped up or inside an envelope, but a simple two-sided piece of thick paper, was the most common form of sending messages through post in India. It was the cheapest by a margin. Anybody could read it. I think folks then had nothing to hide too.

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