23/09/2016 6:56 PM IST | Updated 23/09/2016 8:50 PM IST

In Win For Indian Students, Court Orders WhatsApp To Delete Data On Users Who Quit Before Sept. 25

WhatsApp had revised its privacy policy last month to share data with owner Facebook

Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Two Indian students scored a partial victory over Facebook Inc. in a closely watched legal battle over privacy, though they failed to get the internet giant to reverse policies they say threaten the rights of millions of users.

WhatsApp revised its privacy policy last month to share data with owner Facebook and allow targeted ads and messages from businesses, laying the groundwork for the free messaging service to begin making money. Students Karmanya Singh Sareen and Shreya Sethi, 19 and 22 respectively, then filed a public-interest litigation -- akin to a class action -- seeking to block those changes. They wanted a rollback of those updates, in a lawsuit that's attracted attention as a test case for how legal authorities around the world may respond.

The Delhi High Court on Friday ruled that WhatsApp has to delete all data on users who choose to stop using the service before Sept. 25, when the new policy takes effect. Also, it can only share data collected after that date. However, going forward, WhatsApp is free to share information on users who haven't opted out. The court also asked India's government to consider if it was feasible to craft regulations to oversee WhatsApp and other messaging apps, though it didn't specify what form they could take.

A lot's at stake for Facebook in India, where it has close to 150 million users, its biggest base outside the U.S. Research firm eMarketer said India would soon have the world's largest Facebook population. WhatsApp alone has over 70 million users in India, according to a SimilarWeb report in May.

The Indian challenge follows similar hurdles around the world, with the European Union and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission examining whether users have been wronged and a German consumer group threatening to sue the company. Facebook didn't immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment outside normal business hours.

WhatsApp said the changes announced last month were compliant with the law and it was giving users time to react, even letting them turn off data sharing. In a brief hearing in Delhi last week, WhatsApp said it doesn't intend to share content with Facebook except user names and phone numbers.

Facebook has a history of lawsuits over user privacy and advertising. In a 2011 settlement with the FTC, the company agreed that it would always ask users for permission before making changes to privacy practices.

When the world's largest social networking company acquired WhatsApp in 2014, users worried it would change the nature of an app that had been free of advertising. WhatsApp chief executive Jan Koum said at the time nothing would change in terms of privacy. In a recent blog post about the changes, WhatsApp told users their encrypted messages would stay private, and that no one else can read them.

"Not WhatsApp, not Facebook, nor anyone else. We won't post or share your WhatsApp number with others, including on Facebook, and we still won't sell, share, or give your phone number to advertisers," the company said.

But Singh, an engineering student, and Sethi said in their petition that the changes compromise the security, safety and privacy of data that belongs to users. They said the term "user consent" is meaningless in India as most aren't equipped to comprehend the consequences of the policy changes. WhatsApp attracted a substantial user base through its assurance of complete privacy and its recent changes were a breach of trust, they said.