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WhatsApp Users Are Being Forced to Play Ball with Facebook

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The announcement of WhatsApp’s new terms and privacy policy has sparked outrage and triggered a surge of defections to rival services.

If you want to remain one of WhatsApp’s two billion users, you will soon have no choice but to accept their new Facebook-oriented terms and conditions, which allow WhatsApp to, among other things, share user data with “Facebook’s family of companies.”

WhatsApp recently alerted its users of an update to its privacy policy – and if they want to keep using the popular messaging app, they have to accept it. Previous policy updates have allowed users to opt out of certain provisions. Now, Facebook has removed that ability. The new forced terms sparked an immediate outcry among technology experts, privacy advocates, business users, and government organisations alike. In India, where WhatsApp has more than 200 million users, the powerful Confederation of All India Traders has urged the government to ban both WhatsApp and Facebook in the country in response to the new privacy policy.

WhatsApp claims the change is necessary to help it integrate better with other Facebook products.

But, really, does anyone believe that? Does anyone who’s paid attention to Facebook’s shenanigans over the years think for a moment that they would ever do the right thing by their users?

WhatsApp was launched on Apple’s App Store in August 2009 and on Android’s app marketplace one year later. Less than five years later, in February 2014, Facebook acquired the wildly popular messaging service – renowned for its ad-free platform and iron-clad privacy featuring end-to-end encryption – for a staggering US$19.3 billion. At the time, WhatsApp had just posted a US$138 million annual loss.

Let’s be real here: No corporation, particularly one like Facebook, would pony up that kind of money for an acquisition unless they thought they could profit from it.

Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 with no clear plan on how to monetise the service | Graphic Credit: TechCrunch

And that brings us to 2021. Now, to continue using the messaging service, users have to agree that WhatsApp can share its data with Facebook. The new terms go into effect on February 8, 2021, and if you don’t agree to the terms, your sole remaining option is to uninstall the app. (Note: Following the backlash, an announcement was made on January 15 that the update would now not be put into effect until May 15, 2021.)

The change does not impact users in the European Union, as it runs afoul of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation laws. That the new WhatsApp terms are considered largely illegal under the EU’s strict privacy laws should tell you all you need to know about how user-friendly the update really is.

An Explosive Backlash

The response to the new policy was, to put it mildly, savage. A large number of users have already begun migrating to rival platforms such as Telegram and Signal, the latter of which is funded in part by WhatsApp’s original co-founder Brian Acton. To say the backlash has been swift and severe would be an understatement.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who recently became the world’s richest person, piled on, as well, tweeting last week “Use Signal” to his 42 million-plus followers. As the WhatsApp controversy has grown, Signal has quickly become one of the most downloaded apps on Android and iOS. The surge has been so immense that the app’s verification system for signing up new users has repeatedly buckled under the pressure. Telegram, which is currently No. 2 behind Signal on Apple’s App Store, saw more than 25 million new users sign up in just the last 72 hours. Over 38% of that surge came from Asia.

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Facebook really has no one but itself to blame. Despite a hasty response from WhatsApp in an effort to clarify the changes and contain the fallout, the damage has likely been done, and it’s not been helped by Facebook’s truly abysmal track record when it comes to protecting user data and being transparent about its privacy practices.

Another concern relates to the new WhatsApp terms regarding its collection and use of precise location data from your phone.

Location Information. We collect and use precise location information from your device with your permission when you choose to use location-related features, like when you decide to share your location with your contacts or view locations nearby or locations others have shared with you. There are certain settings relating to location-related information which you can find in your device settings or the in-app settings, such as location sharing. Even if you do not use our location-related features, we use IP addresses and other information like phone number area codes to estimate your general location (e.g., city and country). We also use your location information for diagnostics and troubleshooting purposes.

WhatsApp executives are now on the defensive, trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube. On the internet, on social media, and on its own platforms, they’re loudly clarifying that of course nothing nefarious is afoot. You know, because Facebook would never do anything to compromise its users’ data and privacy. Oh, wait…

Perhaps recognising that Facebook’s awful reputation wasn’t going to allow this to fly under the internet’s radar, WhatsApp quickly sought to clarify the new terms of use with a smattering of infographic tiles.

Each point in this summary infographic is explained in a separate tile, below

You can actually compare and contrast the old and new policies to see the specific changes. The current WhatsApp terms of service can be found here, with the updated terms here. For the current privacy policy, click here, and here for the new privacy policy.

Is this a tempest in a teapot? Honestly, it’s hard to say at this point. Perhaps it’s not as awful as it’s being made out to be. But frankly, given Facebook’s diabolical track record and consistent and repeated attempts to obfuscate its own policy changes over the years, it’s really no surprise that users are revolting.

Whether the huge backlash will force any revision by Facebook before the change is forced on WhatsApp users remains to be seen.




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