Privacy Groups Call For Probe Into £11.4bn Facebook WhatsApp Takeover

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US regulators face calls from privacy advocates to investigate Facebook’s expensive acquisition of WhatsApp

Facebook’s $19 billion (£11.4bn) acquisition of the popular mobile instant messaging app WhatsApp could be in for a bumpy ride, following protests from privacy advocates who have concerns about what exactly the social network plans to do with WhatsApp’s 450 million users – especially considering WhatsApp’s strict ban on advertising.

The compliant was filed with the Federal Trade Commission by two privacy groups, namely the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy.

“This complaint concerns the impact on consumer privacy of the proposed acquisition of WhatsApp Inc by Facebook Inc,” it reads. “WhatsApp built a user base based on its commitment not to collect user data for advertising revenue.”

Privacy Concerns

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“Acting in reliance on WhatsApp representations, Internet users provided detailed personal information to the company including private text to close friends,” the complaint states. “Facebook routinely makes use of user information for advertising purposes and has made clear that it intends to incorporate the data of Whats App users into the user profiling business model. The proposed acquisition will therefore violate WhatsApp users’ understanding of their exposure to online advertising and constitutes an unfair and deceptive trade practice, subject to investigation by the Federal Trade Commission.”

It cited the fact that WhatApp’s privacy policy, which was last updated in July 2012, categorically states that WhatsApp “does not collect names, emails, addresses or other contact in formation from its users’ mobile address book or contact lists” other than mobile phone numbers.

The compliant highlights user concerns that have been voiced since the deal was announced. It is a well know fact that WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum was proud of his firm’s anti-advertising policy and he has gone on record as stating that phones were personal to people, and that it would be wrong to intrude on people’s conversations.

This is in marked contrast to Facebook’s approach, which is seeking to ramp up its efforts to monetise its increasingly mobile user base. Zuckerberg has for the moment promised that WhatsApp will remain autonomous, but this has not stopped concerns that adverts could eventually appeared in the WhatsApp app in the future.

“As we have said repeatedly, Whatsapp will operate as a separate company and will honour its commitments to privacy and security,” Facebook was quoted by Reuters as saying in a statement in response to the filing.

European Probes?

And it is not just in America that these concerns exit, as there have also been talks of privacy probes in Europe.

According to Bloomberg, Europe’s top privacy investigator Jacob Kohnstamm, who leads a group of EU privacy officials (the Article 29 Data Protection Working Party), Facebook’s acquisition risks an official probe on this side of the pond.

The European watchdog is said to be already investigating WhatsApp, because of concerns over the app’s collection of data from users’ address books when they download the application. The risk with such a database is that “it is tempting to use this data” for a completely different purpose, Kohnstamm was quoted as saying. The company’s “collection of data of people that aren’t using WhatsApp is extreme and is not compliant with Dutch and European law.”

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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