Wednesday, 1 November 2017

WhatsApp and Facebook: Non-Compliance with EU?

Are WhatsApp and Facebook guilty of non-compliance with EU law? That is what a special task force wants to know, according to a 26 October (2017) story published by the BBC. That story says that a data protection task force has been established to consider practices related to data sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook.

Facebook purchased the WhatsApp messaging app in 2014 in order to better compete against Microsoft and other rivals. At the time of purchase, company officials pledged to keep the two platforms completely independent from one another. That changed in 2016 when officials at WhatsApp announced plans in August to begin sharing user information with Facebook.

Under EU law, any such information sharing can only be conducted with the explicit consent of users. Then UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham complained that WhatsApp's plan for obtaining user consent was insufficient to comply with the law. Still, WhatsApp and Facebook went ahead with their plans to share friend suggestions and advertising information on the two platforms.

Deficient User Consent


According to the BBC report, the Information Commissioner's new task force has invited officials from both WhatsApp and Facebook to meet with them. There is no word yet about whether they will or not. However, do not rely on the Information Commissioner going easy on Facebook and its subsidiary. People in positions of power are already unhappy and that will not change unless WhatsApp and Facebook change what they are doing.

The BBC report cited a letter the Working Party to WhatsApp officials. That letter apparently pointed out a number of deficiencies with WhatsApp's current user consent practices, including the following:

  • An unclear pop-up notice that does not fully explain that user information will be shared with Facebook;
  • A misleading implication that WhatsApp's privacy policy has been updated to ‘reflect new features’;
  • Requiring users to uncheck a pre-checked box that otherwise gives consent; and
  • A lack of easier means to allow users to opt out of data sharing.

Greater Scrutiny of Digital Companies


The complaints against WhatsApp and Facebook come at a time when the EU is subjecting digital companies to greater scrutiny over privacy concerns. As to whether WhatsApp and Facebook will face any real penalties for their alleged lack of compliance remains to be seen. But the fact that a task force has been established shows that the government believes it has a fairly compelling case.

If the case goes against WhatsApp and Facebook, it could set the stage for other digital companies revamping their privacy policies. That is not necessarily a bad thing. We already know that people are rather careless about protecting their own data online, so it seems to make sense to implement privacy policies that protect users as much as possible, thereby forcing them to make a conscious decision to be less careless.

In the meantime, WhatsApp users should be aware of what the company is doing with their data. They are probably sharing it with Facebook.

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