whatsapp, Facebook

On Monday, Britain’s privacy watchdog announced that Facebook has agreed to suspend using data from UK users of its WhatsApp messaging app for advertisements or product improvement purposes. This move from the social media giant follows the watchdog’s verdict that consumers aren’t properly protected. The watchdog further went on to declare that Facebook faces action if it uses such data without valid consent.

When WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014, it underwent the first change in its privacy policy in four years and said that it would share user data with its parent company to better fight spam and improve users’ experiences of both services. Back in August, The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said that it would monitor this new privacy policy.

WhatsApp promised it wouldn’t share its users’ messages for any purpose other than to seek assistance from Facebook in operating and providing its services. In fact, users were also given the option to opt-out within 30 days.

Despite its reassurances, the deal resulted in an inevitable backlash — mainly due to the fact that WhatsApp was viewed as having shed its long-touted standing as an independent platform. Concerns were also raised by a German governmental agency and an EU advocacy group. The Indian HC has also raised concerns over the same but the WhatsApp still continues to share data with its parent.

The two companies have also come under scrutiny from the European Union’s 28 data protection authorities, who last month requested that WhatsApp pause sharing users’ data with its parent company until the appropriate legal protections could be assured. Elizabeth Denham, head of the ICO, said in a statement:

We’re pleased that they’ve agreed to pause using data from UK WhatsApp users for advertisements or product improvement purposes. If Facebook starts using the data without valid consent, they may face enforcement action from my office.

The regulator said it had also asked Facebook and WhatsApp to sign an undertaking committing to better explaining to customers how their data would be used and to give them ongoing control over that data. So far, however, this condition has not been agreed to. Denham also added,

We think consumers deserve a greater level of information and protection, but so far Facebook hasn’t agreed.

A Facebook spokesperson shared the following statement:

WhatsApp designed its privacy policy and terms update to give users a clear and simple explanation of how the service works, as well as choice over how their data is used. These updates comply with applicable law, and follow the latest guidance from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.

We hope to continue our detailed conversations with the ICO and other data protection officials, and we remain open to working collaboratively to address their questions.

Denham, however, said that she did not think users were given enough information about what Facebook would do with their data and that WhatsApp had not obtained valid consent. Several other European privacy watchdogs, such as Spain’s, have said they intend to contact Facebook about WhatsApp’s privacy policy change but yet remain to do so.

For its part, Facebook has suggested it would be inappropriate to reach a specific solution with one regulator before receiving questions from all the others. Enforcement action could ultimately lead to fines. When compared with the revenues of the companies concerned, such fines are small, but a new EU-wide data protection law coming into force in 2018 would change that with fines of up to 4 percent of global turnover.

Denham said she would keep pushing the issue along with other privacy watchdogs, notably the Irish authority. It has the most sway over Facebook since the U.S. company’s European headquarters are in Ireland.

Facebook insists that the data WhatsApp collects is extremely limited and only a part of that is then shared with Facebook. However, it is unclear at this early stage how long the suspension will last.

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