WhatsApp Faces Privacy Revolt

New privacy policies will force WhatsApp users in some regionsto share their data with Facebook and its other offerings to keep using the popular service.

Dominance has a tendency to breed arrogance. Yet for Facebook, the revolt that greeted its decision to change the privacy policies on its messaging platform WhatsApp was humbling. In effect, the company has been forced to push back implementation of the controversial terms from Feb. 8 to May 15.

Offering a channel through which a user can chat with a business’s customer service via WhatsApp—the rationale for the changes—remains a revenue-generating opportunity for the platform. Facebook’s $1 billion acquisition of Kustomer late last year indicated it intends to provide businesses with more tools to exploit its strong base of users.

If the new privacy policies are implemented, however, WhatsApp users in some regions would be forced to share their data with Facebook and its other offerings to keep using the popular service. WhatsApp protests that a lot of “misinformation” has been spread about the new terms, but the backlash has been unprecedented. Fueling the anger are perceptions that the company is engaging in a double standard, since the new policies do not apply in Europe.

WhatsApp boasts some 2 billion users worldwide. In India, its largest base with 450 million users, the government wants the new policies withdrawn, terming them unfair and unacceptable. In Indonesia, another key market with over 140 million users, the level of discomfort is also conspicuous.

“Facebook is engaging in surveillance capitalism,” turning personal data into assets it can resell, observes Mugambi Laibuta, advocate and lecturer at the Kenya School of Law, “but it is wrong to deploy double standards by targeting regions with weak data-protection laws.”

In Europe, laws protecting citizens’ data privacy are stringent. In late 2019, Kenya enacted a data-privacy law and has created a post of data-protection commissioner; in India, a data-protection bill is awaiting enactment, although it has been criticized as allowing too much latitude for government surveillance. The majority of other developing nations have no such data laws, however.

Where governments cannot protect, however, individuals will act. Since WhatsApp’s original announcement of the new policy last year, rival Telegram has announced that it surpassed 500 million users, including 25 million new ones in three days alone and another competitor, Signal, went down due to an influx of new users. Both benefited from mass migrations of far-right users from Facebook and Twitter.

“People hate data mining, because they have no control over how the information will be used,” says Laibuta.