In February 2014, Facebook purchased WhatsApp for a whooping $19 billion. This deal came under scrutiny from various privacy advocates. They questioned if the standards of privacy and security of communication on WhatsApp would be maintained post acquisition. WhatsApp reassured users of its commitment to privacy through a blog post titled ‘Setting the record straight’. The blog clarified that WhatsApp would operate independently and autonomously with no new data being collected. In a separate post, WhatsApp categorically assured ‘nothing’ would change for the user. Reinforcing its commitment to privacy, earlier this year WhatsApp had even introduced end to end encryption.
Most users have already received a notification from WhatsApp about their updated Terms of Service. Although WhatsApp has presented users with the option to opt-out (though only partially), it has made it difficult for users to exercise this option. The option is only visible once you click on ‘read’. As users rarely inspect standard form contracts – it is likely that this option would be overlooked by many.
Problems with the new Changes
These new changes are fraught with problems. First, WhatsApp has not sought consent for sharing data for purposes other than advertising. While examples of ‘other purposes’ are provided for, the list is non-exhaustive. This paves way for sharing of data and its use without knowledge and consent of the user. Further, the data shared may include phone number and pictures which are recognised by many as personally identifiable information. Sharing of personally identifiable information is subject to informed consent by data protection laws across the world. This policy ignores such requirements. Second, once the user agrees to share the terms of the policy – they only have a time period of 30 days to opt out. This time period is an unfair limitation on the rights of users to stop WhatsApp from sharing of data for advertising purposes in the future. By not incorporating an option to revoke consent at any point of time – WhatsApp again ignores one of key safeguards for protecting the right to privacy. Third, the policy provides for an opt-out mechanism as opposed to an opt-in mechanism. Instead of seeking user consent before sharing the data the mechanism is designed in a manner that requires users to take active steps to prevent sharing of information. Opt-out boxes assume user consent until the user un-checks the box and often run the risk of being missed by users. Fourth, at the time of acquisition of WhatsApp the Federal Trade Commission of USA had issued a letter to both Facebook and WhatsApp reminding them of the need to maintain their privacy commitments. The letter required affirmative express consent (such as opt-in) in case data is used in a manner inconsistent with the promises made at the time of collection of such data. An opportunity to opt-out was required in case of changes in collection, use and sharing of ‘newly collected data’. While this new policy applies to data that was collected earlier (such as phone number and contact details) it goes for an opt-out option as opposed to affirmative consent through an opt-in option.
Finally, WhatsApp and Facebook repeatedly assured users that ‘nothing’ would change as a result of the merger. The policy for use of data to customise advertising goes against WhatsApp’s earlier policies as well as the 2014 assurances of no change in data use. This new policy not only undermines the right to privacy in many ways – but goes a long way in undermining the trust of users.
Reactions to the Policy
The policy has been condemned by many. The absence of even an opt-out option for sharing of data for purposes other than advertising has invited even greater criticism. The Electronic Privacy Information Center from the United States has filed a complaint before the Federal Trade Commission against WhatsApp and Facebook. The Data Protection Authority in the UK, the Information Commissioners Office, has also stated that it would be investigating these changes. Reports indicate that most of the EU regulators will also be closely following the changes in the WhatsApp policy.
(I would like to thank my colleague Kritika Bhardwaj for her assistance with this piece)