Not 'appy: has WhatsApp’s terms update sparked a privacy revolution?

Any smartphone owner is unlikely to have missed the drama playing out for WhatsApp and its two billion global users, over the past few weeks. Here, we examine what has happened and take a step back to look at the bigger picture: what do the recent issues for the world’s most popular messaging application mean for the future of data and privacy?

What happened?

At the start of 2021, WhatsApp users, notably in India, began receiving in-app notifications requesting they accept an update to its terms of service and privacy policy. Despite the change not being applicable to users in every country, evidence of the notifications being issued to users from all over the world, including in the UK, started circulating on Twitter and on websites.

Specifically, the request detailed updates to information about:

  • WhatsApp’s service and how user data is processed.
  • How businesses can use parent-company Facebook’s hosted services to store and manage their WhatsApp chats.
  • How WhatsApp partners with Facebook to offer integrations across Facebook Company Products.

Users were given until the 8th of February to accept the changes, or face not being able to use the app at all.

Chaos ensued.

WhatsApp faced an exodus of users, many of whom began downloading what were previously lesser-known competitors. In the week prior to the announcement, rival app, Signal, had been downloaded globally just shy of 250,000 times. The week after, 8.8. million downloads were registered. At another messenger app, Telegram, founder Pavel Durov proclaimed the 25 million new users it welcomed in just 72 hours was ‘the largest digital migration in history’.

Closer to home, WhatsApp fell from the 8th most-downloaded app in the UK to the 23rd. By contrast, Signal, which had been previously outside the top 1,000, became the most-downloaded just five days after the update announcement. 

Both of the rival apps collect comparatively little data and have welcomed new users with open arms: Signal only stores a user phone number and makes no attempt to link it to a person, whilst similarly, Telegram only holds a user ID, contact list and their info.

WhatsApp was left scrambling to put together damage limitation plans, including, according to Reuters, investing ‘tens of millions of rupees in at least ten English and Hindi newspapers’, using full-page adverts to win back its circa 400 million users in one of their biggest markets with communications claiming ‘WhatsApp respects and protects your privacy’. Over here, the company has been pushing reassurance messages online and on social media about the trustworthiness of their operations.

Most notably, 11 days later, on the 15th of January, WhatsApp responded to the backlash by extending the deadline its users have to accept the updated terms and conditions to the 15th of May, to give them time to review and understand the changes. It also provided a new FAQ webpage to provide clarity in response to a number of ‘thoughtful questions’ regarding what they called ‘some of the rumours going around’.

But is it all too late? With millions of competitor apps already downloaded to phones across the world, has WhatsApp just given users more time to get settled into their new messenger services before cutting ties with them? And just why were users so upset?

What was the problem?

Changes to the terms of usage and privacy policies is not uncommon as apps continually develop and grow. WhatsApp had previously changed their terms as recently as July 2020, though they provided their users the ability to opt-out of sharing their information with parent Facebook.

This time round, however, they gave users an ultimatum: they had to accept the changes by the deadline, or face not being able to use the app. Evidently, WhatsApp users were not impressed with the ‘like it or lump it’ stance, and voted with their feet.

However, despite the fear amongst users that their WhatsApp data was about to be handed over to Facebook, this was not the case. The changes primarily affect business communications and may be designed to pave the way to monetising the platform, such as enabling marketing communications and in-app purchases.

But the damage had already been done. By failing to be clear when communicating to their customers, WhatsApp caused its own PR crisis.

Perhaps they had underestimated how invested consumers are when it comes to their privacy and data and their understanding of it? Perhaps they thought customers would just accept the new conditions without reviewing what they are – how many of us read through all the terms and conditions when downloading an app or visiting a website when they are telling us they ‘respect our privacy’?

What’s the consumer view?

Research by Deloitte into digital trends at the end of 2020 found UK consumers have become less concerned about the use of their data, with just 24% stating they were ‘very concerned’ about it – almost half of the figure from 2018 (47%). Deloitte notes ‘declining levels of concern about the use of data’ over the past few years despite users being exposed to news of data abuse, highlighting the 2018 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, when it came to light that the consulting firm had obtained personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent.

Deloitte puts this down to consumers appearing to enjoy the benefits that trading their data brings as well as ‘familiarity and acceptance’ of its usage. It also notes ‘they [the general public] would be reluctant to trade the inconveniences of being offline for the disadvantages of being online’, suggesting the digital world is very much entwined with everyday life.

So, if consumers are largely happy to hand over their data, what was the issue with WhatsApp and its link to Facebook?

Research undertaken by Foresight Factory, shortly before the introduction of EU General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in 2018, noted that 88% of Brits cite transparency as a key to increasing users’ trust in how their data is used and collected. An earlier YouGov poll in 2017 found 94% of Brits said trust was important in deciding whether to share personal data.

Clearly, despite the nation’s ‘relaxed’ view, trust and transparency are key factors in the consumer decision-making process when it comes to consenting to the use of their data.

WhatsApp has always prided itself on using end-to-end encryption, meaning that whilst it knows the phone numbers of people you’re messaging, it cannot see the content of messages, nor use them for commercial gain.

The terms update is part of the company introducing new payment capabilities so that people can make purchases from businesses using the platform and largely concerns WhatsApp Business – an entirely separate entity from the messenger app.

However, the suggestion that data was set to be shared with Facebook raised alarm bells, perhaps harking back to the Cambridge-Analytica scandal, and undermining trust in the platform.

Their concerns are not unfounded: back in 2017, the social media giant was fined 110 million Euros by the European Commission for misleading it about its 2014 takeover of WhatsApp – Facebook had told the Commission it would not be able to match user accounts on both platforms, but went on to do it via linking phone numbers.

The once-seemingly trustworthy WhatsApp, protector of privacy, had tarnished its own reputation with users by appearing to play at Facebook’s house. When the latter featured heavily in last year’s Netflix drama-documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’, commuter-favourite publication Metro described viewers as being ‘traumatised’ because they ‘didn’t realise just how closely everyone was monitored online’. It would appear consumers are now becoming much more educated about how social media works and what happens to their data – and they aren’t too happy about it.

What’s next?

Polls as recently as the end of last year suggested Brits are happy handing over their data, but recent events would suggest they’re actually more discerning than previously documented – are we witnessing a major change in public opinion when it comes to the handling of their data?

What’s most significant is that the updates were not applicable to users in the UK, at least in the short-term. Although the country has now left the EU, GDPR has been retained in domestic law which states WhatsApp cannot share any data with Facebook – meaning the UK and EU members are exempt from all the changes anyway.

Had WhatsApp been clear in its message from the beginning, this all could have been avoided. What it has highlighted is the pressure of people power is still strong enough to force big businesses to change tack, even if temporarily, and of course, how quickly a lack of clear messaging can spiral out of control and have customers deserting in droves.

Telegram has since upped the ante, when it last week launched new functionality to enable users to move all of their content housed within WhatsApp, including chat history, images and videos, straight over to their platform. A major blow for WhatsApp, the option facilitates a smooth transition over to the Telegram app.

The 15th of May and thereafter will be the biggest test for WhatsApp, because of course, what still remains to be seen is whether users really will abandon the platform if forced to accept the new terms and conditions or whether usage of the app is so entrenched that, for all the downloads, Signal and Telegram apps will sit largely unused on people’s phones.  


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