WhatsApp is to press ahead with its controversial privacy policy update, but has made a number of concessions.

Facebook’s WhatsApp said in a blog post that when it first tried to ask WhatsApp users to review its terms of service and privacy policy, it “encountered a great deal of misinformation about this update and we continue to work hard to clear up any confusion.”

Indeed, WhatsApp faced such a backlash that the government in India, which is WhatsApp’s biggest market, decided to quiz the firm over the change.

Botched update?

The issue began to raise concern among privacy advocates in early January 2021, when WhatsApp said it would update its data sharing policy as a condition of its use going forward.

Users of the popular messaging app began receiving messages asking them to agree to new terms of service and privacy policies.

The changes were compulsory and were due to take effect on February 8. Users would not be able to continue using WhatsApp if they didn’t agree to the new terms and conditions.

WhatsAp then delayed the 8 February deadline, as users flocked to rival services such as Telegram or Signal, with the latter hiring more staff to deal with the surge.

What Facebook messaging app had failed to properly explain was that the terms update was largely aimed at giving users new options for interacting with businesses and providing more clarity about how it collects and uses data.

Essentially, WhatsApp’s data-sharing policy were not be changing, but the company’s notification for many users was the first time they became aware of that policy, which has been in place since 2016.

Data sharing

The policy allows Facebook to access a WhatsApp user’s phone number and other registration information, such as email address, as well as information about the user’s phone, the user’s IP address and any payments or financial transactions made over WhatsApp.

But personal conversations are not shared, as chats are protected by end-to-end encryption.

These data-sharing terms don’t apply in the UK or the EU, which have different privacy laws.

In 2016 WhatsApp gave existing users a limited time to opt out of the data-sharing arrangement, and if users opted out at that time, their choice will continue to be respected.

But the fact that user agreement to the WhatsApp policy update was mandatory, triggered widespread concern and a backlash.

Optional changes

And WhatsApp was keen to stress in its blog on Thursday that the updated policy regarding chatting with a business was optional.

“As a reminder, we’re building new ways to chat or shop with a business on WhatsApp that are entirely optional,” it said. “Personal messages will always be end-to-end encrypted, so WhatsApp can’t read or listen to them.

“We’ve reflected on what we could have done better here,” it said. “We want everyone to know our history of defending end-to-end encryption and trust we’re committed to protecting people’s privacy and security.”

“In the coming weeks, we’ll display a banner in WhatsApp providing more information that people can read at their own pace,” it added. “We’ve also included more information to try and address concerns we’re hearing. Eventually, we’ll start reminding people to review and accept these updates to keep using WhatsApp.”

WhatsApp said it was important people know how it can provide the messaging service for free, and it addressed the users who began using rival services.

“During this time, we understand some people may check out other apps to see what they have to offer,” WhatsApp said. “We’ve seen some of our competitors try to get away with claiming they can’t see people’s messages – if an app doesn’t offer end-to-end encryption by default that means they can read your messages. Other apps say they’re better because they know even less information than WhatsApp.”

“We believe people are looking for apps to be both reliable and safe, even if that requires WhatsApp having some limited data,” said the messaging firm. “We strive to be thoughtful on the decisions we make and we’ll continue to develop new ways of meeting these responsibilities with less information, not more.”

Previous rows

The issue of privacy rows and WhatsApp is not a new one, and has been around for seven years now, after privacy concerns were triggered when the messaging app was absorbed into the social networking giant in 2014.

In March 2018, the UK’s Information Commissioners Office (ICO) concluded a two-year investigation into the data-sharing practices of WhatsApp.

WhatsApp at the time signed a public pledge not to share any UK user’s data with Facebook after the ICO ruled that doing so would be illegal under the data protection act and before the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May 2018.

The ICO inquiry had been undertaken after privacy concerns were first raised by campaigners seven years ago when Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014.

The ICO investigation began in August 2016 when Facebook controversially decided to update WhatsApp’s terms of service and privacy policy to include sharing data with the social network.

This change prompted outrage among WhatsApp users and European regulators.

Matters were not helped by the fact that WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum had denied at the time of the acquisition in 2014 that WhatsApp would have to follow Facebook’s privacy policies.

Indeed, such was the controversy that Facebook had to suspend in November 2016 data sharing between its social network and WhatsApp across the European Union.

That same month WhatsApp also suspended such data sharing activity in the UK.

But the pressure was growing, and in 2018 the other co-founder of WhatsApp, Brian Acton, admitted he had clashed with Facebook management over its attempts to wring money from its popular messaging app.

Acton also admitted at the time that he had sold the privacy of WhatsApp users, and disagreements happened between him and Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg before he left the firm in November 2017.

He was followed shortly after by Jan Koum in May 2018.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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