Whatsapping Trouble

Whatsapping Trouble
WhatsApp’s new data policy being imposed under the threat of service denial has rejuvenated the universal demand for stronger legislation to protect personal data

With over two billion subscribers addicted to the hugely successful messaging app WhatsApp, as it revolutionised personal and even business messaging, the time seems to have come for its subscribers to learn that nothing comes free!

The ongoing controversy is over WhatsApp’s new privacy norms, which demands users' compliance to share data with Facebook if they wish to remain signed into the app. Initially WhatsApp set a February 8 deadline but owing to a global backlash the company deferred the date to 15th May, 2021.

In brief, the mega tech company, now wants to reserve the right to share consumer data with its sister concern Facebook Network and Instagram, irrespective of whether a user has subscribed to those apps or not. 

The heart of the protest is the valid fear that WhatsApp users’ profiles and data could be “misused”, due to the perceived lack of trust in Facebook, brought on by several controversies it has faced over data privacy.

Even worse, the policy is not applicable to the users in the Eurozone as these countries already have a robust data protection law in place. Sharing Whatsapp data with Facebook would be illegal under the Eurozone’s General Data Protection Regulation.

THE RISE OF THE EMPIRE

Founded in 2009 by Brian Acton and Jan Koum, WhatsApp immediately became immensely popular for its user-friendly format and robust architecture, and more importantly, because it was free!

Not surprisingly, in 2014, Mark Zuckerberg acquired it for a whopping US$ 19 billion. Facebook was well aware of the attractions of the app that made it so globally popular and therefore allowed it to retain its independent identity and privacy policies. Consequently, the app grew in popularity and usage but did not directly contribute to the revenues of its parent corporation Facebook. For instance, in 2019 it made just Rs. 6.84 crore  ($ 1 million) in revenue from India, where it has one of its largest user bases. But it was only a matter of time before Facebook changed the rules of the game.

The new policy is all about making Whatsapp a part of the monetising process as till date the Facebook Network was the real money-spinner with ads while WhatsApp remained ad free. The new policy states, “WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information with, the other Facebook Companies. We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate.” In other words, with data mined from Whatsapp, the reach of the Facebook Network for online ads will be considerably enhanced.

Facebook creates a platform for people to interact casually and later monetises it by allowing advertisers to enter and reach the group. Designing and using user data to help advertisers reach their target audience earned Facebook global revenue of over US $ 70 billion in 2019.

The fact that it is dictated by advertiser needs led to doubts over its privacy commitments to users and triggered serious allegations and questions over personal data on Facebook. WhatsApp, on the other hand, was built on the promise of end-to-end encryption of chats and strict privacy norms.

In fact, it was even used for sensitive communications by people who did not rely on telecom service providers and feared that governments were monitoring texts and calls from phones. 

That trust has been eroded with a viral backlash accompanied by raging comments and warnings from even celebrities and experts urging people to exit WhatsApp as personal data is no longer safe on the platform.

WhatsApp is trying to fight back and reassure users. It released a global ad campaign and statement assuring users that the change in norms is not for consumer chats or profile data of private users, but only for businesses using WhatsApp for customer service, storing logs of chats on Facebook servers.

GLOBAL PARANOIA

Despite all its assurances and full front-page ads in major daily newspapers, the trust of the consumer has taken a beating and individuals, and companies are exiting the app in hordes. There are few takers for Facebook Network’s clarification that only data from commercial users will be mined.

This has been the golden opportunity of other messaging apps, so far languishing under the omnipresent shadow of WhatsApp, to emerge from the shadows. Telegram and Signal have been the biggest gainers and have seen a surge in new users.

Telegram delightfully welcomed 25 million new users in just three days after January 6, the day WhatsApp made the privacy policy public. Signal, which is a non-profit, crowdfunded platform committed to privacy, has seen almost a million subscribers joining it on each day after the controversy broke out.

Even Facebook must have been surprised by the violent reaction to its deceivingly mildly worded policy agreement, as an average user seldom reads the fine print. Typically, users tamely put a tik on the ‘I agree’ box, without getting into the details.

However, so much has been written and debated over privacy and data theft, this response should have been anticipated by Facebook moguls. This was perhaps one unique occasion when the complicated, hard-to-read and even harder to comprehend, convoluted details in the test of the privacy policy agreement put up by all social media platforms, failed to bypass the consumer.

Ironically, WhatsApp, which has been used by various large entities — from governments to political to corporations — to peddle disinformation globally, is now a victim of “disinformation” around its privacy policy. Despite the company’s assurances that the policy will not affect private messages, a lingering suspicion and overwhelming fear persist.

SOCIAL MEDIA PRIVACY

Still, there is no guarantee that other messaging apps will not use a business model like Facebook to monetise the data in their possession.

Users on any platform that aims to be a profit-making entity run the risk of their data being misused, and there is always a question mark over the long-term survival of not-for-profit platforms like Signal. The issue demands a transparent, thorough international framework to protect user data.

Arriving at a framework is a contentious issue as even governments are not being trusted to protect data in their possession. In every way, this is a challenge for the present and future where the power of private entities and governments to gather a humongous amount of data is growing exponentially.

Assessments

  • While it would be premature to predict the demise of WhatsApp as a global behemoth, since it remains popular with its billions of faithful adherents, there may be a significant fall in its membership, especially amongst corporate/ paid users. However, the trust factor has definitely taken a beating which will take time to restore and regaining lost trust is not an easy task. WhatsApp has a lot of damage control on its hands.
  • The customer has risen to remind big tech that they are an essential stakeholder in the business and cannot be ignored. This is the message all social media platforms need to imbibe. With choices galore, no one app can hold the customer to ransom. Social media platforms cannot compromise on credibility for profitability.
  • On their part, users must be aware that there is no such thing as a free lunch, even on social media. This emphasises the urgent need for a framework to oversee the collection and use of data by private entities and even governments. India too must pass its long due data protection act at the earliest, as has been done by the Eurozone.

(Author: T.M. Veeraraghav, Consulting Editor, Synergia Foundation)

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