Privacy groups complain to FTC about WhatsApp policy changes

The changes in WhatsApp terms and privacy policies are also being scrutinized in Europe

Privacy groups in the U.S. have complained to the Federal Trade Commission that changes last week in WhatsApp’s terms and privacy policy breaks its previous promise that user data collected would not be used or disclosed for marketing purposes.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy have described the changes as unfair and deceptive trade practice, subject to an investigation and injunction by the FTC, in their complaint Monday.

WhatsApp said last week it will be sharing some account information of users with Facebook and its companies, including the mobile phone numbers they verified when they registered with WhatsApp. The sharing of information will enable users to see better friend suggestions and more relevant ads on Facebook, it added.

Messages, photos, and account information shared on the messaging app would not be shared on Facebook or any of the Facebook family of apps for others to see, WhatsApp said.

For Facebook, which paid US$22 billion for WhatsApp, the changes are an attempt by the social networking company to earn revenue from the platform.

The U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office on Friday also quoted the new commissioner Elizabeth Denham as saying that the changes WhatsApp and Facebook are making will affect a lot of people, and “our role is to pull back the curtain on things like this, ensuring that companies are being transparent with the public about how their personal data is being shared, and protecting consumers by making sure the law is being followed.”

Article 29 Working Party, a European Union body that represents 28 national data protection authorities, told the Wall Street Journal Monday that it was looking into the policy changes by WhatsApp “with great vigilance.”

“WhatsApp complies with applicable laws. As always, we consider our obligations when designing updates like this,” a WhatsApp spokesman said in an emailed statement.

The company that Facebook acquired some two years ago is likely to claim that it is not in violation of any promise made previously as it is giving users the choice to opt out of the new program.

Users are being prompted to tap to “Agree” to the updated terms of service and privacy policies. They can also opt out within 30 days on the account settings by unchecking the relevant box or toggling the control regarding sharing of account information.

If users opt out, “the Facebook family of companies will still receive and use this information for other purposes such as improving infrastructure and delivery systems, understanding how our services or theirs are used, securing systems, and fighting spam, abuse, or infringement activities.”

The privacy groups cite a promise by WhatsApp founder Jan Koum in a blog post in which he said that users of the messenger app could “still count on absolutely no ads” interrupting their communication after the Facebook acquisition. The complaint also cites a remark in 2014 by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a news report, in which he stated that “we are absolutely not going to change plans around WhatsApp and the way it uses user data. WhatsApp is going to operate completely autonomously.”

The groups have also pointed out that following a complaint in March 2014 on the consumer privacy implications of Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp, the FTC sent a letter in this regard to both companies that “WhatsApp’s privacy policy clearly states, among other things, that users’ information will not be used for advertising purposes or sold to a third party for commercial or marketing use without the users’ consent.”

The letter further states that “Facebook has recently promised consumers that it would not change the way WhatsApp uses customer information.”

FTC press releases and blog posts also require that WhatsApp and Facebook must obtain an opt-in consent from users prior to the proposed data transfer, according to the complaint. It states that a FTC release about the agreement had stated that the companies would have to obtain affirmative consent from consumers before making changes to how they use the data they have already collected.

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