WHAT’S UP WITH WHATSAPP?

By: Stuart White 25-01-2021

Categories:HRMC Articles written by Managing Director, Stuart White,

 

WHAT’S UP WITH WHATSAPP?

In early January,  WhatsApp, part of Facebook Inc.,  began alerting its 2 billion users to an update of its privacy policy which, should they want to keep using the popular messaging app, they have to accept. Much of the policy, which is about commercialising WhatsApp, 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 and market services’.  WhatsApp is now reserving the right to share data it collects about you with the broader Facebook network, which includes Instagram, regardless of whether you have accounts or profiles there, claiming  it needs it to help operate and improve its offerings. More broadly, almost all of the $21.5 billion in revenues which  Facebook generated in the third quarter of 2020 came from advertising and there is currently none in WhatsApp. The company now wants to be able to serve more targeted ads to people on Facebook and Instagram by also garnering their usage habits on WhatsApp and enabling businesses take payments via WhatsApp for items that were selected on other Facebook sites. For long-time users, the option to share data with Facebook was made available in 2016, but it was just that: optional and temporary. It was now to become mandatory for everybody from Feb. 8 but owing to a massive backlash,  the company has delayed that to May 15 to try and persuade users to sign up to the new Ts and Cs.

WhatsApp on Monday attempted to address the uproar over privacy concerns with a post on its website, explaining that the update was designed to aid businesses on its platform, as it reiterated in Friday's post.

"We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way. Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data." 

These new terms have caused an outcry among technology experts, privacy advocates, billionaire entrepreneurs and government organisations and triggered a wave of defections to rival services.  Elon Musk has urged his followers to switch to Signal and the governments of Turkey and India have threatened to block the app if it insists on proceeding.  ‘WhatsApp’s updated privacy policy verges on user surveillance and threatens India’s security’, a petition filed in an Indian court said on Thursday, presenting another legal challenge for the Facebook Inc. -owned messenger. “It virtually gives a 360-degree profile into a person’s online activity,” lawyer Chaitanya Rohilla told the Delhi High Court.  Many Indian users have began installing rival apps like Signal and Telegram, pushing WhatsApp to begin a costly advertising campaign to calm its 400 million customer-base, the largest of any country.  The change has also met with a challenge in Turkey with the country’s Competition Board this week launching an investigation into the messaging service and its parent company.

Elsewhere too, in spite of Whatsapp protestations, millions of its users are already migrating to alternative platforms.  Signal saw 7.5 million downloads last week, a 4,200% spike since the previous week and large swaths of users also jumped to Telegram, as the platform gained 9 million new users last week, up 91% from the previous week.  Both apps are now topping Google and Apple's app stores,  

Facebook could possibly learn a lesson from history here.  Every past empire – Aztec, Mayan,  Greco-Roman, Sumerian, Mongol, Chinese, Ottoman and more recently British, all saw their star rise, their glory swell, their boundaries grow and yet each eventually fell, often the instigators of their own downfall.  They expanded too far too fast and could not control what they had initially conquered.  And now it looks like the same fate might await this large tech giant. Parent company Facebook has also come under fire recently for overt and covert censorship policies with questions raised as to partisanship and curtailment of freedom of speech.  Thus one would have to question the wisdom of the timing of this new Whatsapp privacy policy, if nothing else.

To understand its influence and control one only has to check out the un-smart sector of the mobile phone industry which for some time has offered handsets a small step up from the basic starter sets  with Facebook and Whatsapp as default screen app settings.  These limited internet access options have allowed millions of users to connect with affordable data bundle packages.  And for Google smartphone subscribers, the search engine automatically connects its base to Whatsapp and Facebook – one big, happy family.  Facebook is also seamlessly linked to Paypal offering contact-less charges for its  boosted post advertising, a somewhat sinister partnership which accesses their Paypal log-in and authorisation details without the need to inform the payee – the transaction is simply deducted automatically from the registered credit card.    This is Big Brother with a blue logo.

The bottom line here is that if you have any privacy issues at all – and you probably should – you might as well make the switch now before you are forced to sign away your rights in May.  And the plus part is that both Signal and Telegram have the technological edge over Whatsapp anyway, the latter even being accessible on multiple platforms simultaneously, not just on your phone.  

Empires take time to crumble and Facebook is not in imminent danger but information is a weapon that can be used in any war, even a virtual conflict, so don’t give this giant any more ammunition  than it already has.