In January, WhatsApp users were told if they wanted to keep using the software, they must agree to an updated fine print that, among other things, allows their data to be passed onto not only WhatsApp's parent Facebook but also its subsidiaries as and when decided by the tech giant.
This information includes names, profile pictures, status updates, phone numbers, contacts lists, and details about mobile devices and connections, though not the contents of encrypted messages and calls. Those who did not accept the terms and conditions would not be allowed to use the application from February.
After a surge of interest in alternative messaging systems, such as Signal and Telegram, in response to this ultimatum, Facebook backed down on the February deadline, and then returned swinging. For the past few weeks it has popped up alerts in WhatsApp attempting to explain the data sharing, and now says netizens must accept or lose out from May 15.
Folks who don't agree to the new terms by that date won't be cut off immediately. Instead, after several weeks they'll be shown "persistent reminders" and suffer a degradation of service. First, conversations will be hidden, though people will still be able to take incoming voice and video calls, and respond to messages via notifications. A few weeks after this, the software will be totally useless, and after 120 days of inactivity, the WhatsApp account will be automatically closed.
"If you’d like to delete your account on Android, iPhone, or KaiOS, we hope you reconsider. Deleting your account is something we can’t reverse as it erases your message history, removes you from all of your WhatsApp groups, and deletes your WhatsApp backups," Zuck & Co warned. You can export your messages and files from the app, if you so wish.
In short, WhatsApp says there is no practical change for its users. However, this whole affair has been poorly communicated, the lengthy fine print is open to interpretation, and if the update is so immaterial: why is Facebook going so far as to wind down features in its own messaging app to pressure people into accepting?
Germany says nein, danke
This all comes as WhatsApp's terms and conditions face increasing scrutiny; the change in policy has even driven Germany to temporarily ban Facebook from processing people's personal info from WhatsApp under the GDPR.
- WhatsApp in India? A probe into Facebook privacy, citizen cyber-cops absolved, and censorship criticism
- Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp pause usual data collection with an outage
- Indian government slams Facebook over WhatsApp 'privacy' update, wants its own Europe-style opt-out switch
- If you're a WhatsApp user, you'll have to share your personal data with Facebook's empire from next month – or stop using the chat app
Hamburg's Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information Johannes Caspar said [PDF] on Tuesday the three-month injunction, effective immediately, was brought because, besides other privacy concerns, the convoluted fine print is so difficult to understand that "even after close analysis, it is not clear what consequences approval has for users."
The commissioner's office said the changes to the fine print are not exactly inert, as they "grant WhatsApp far-reaching powers to share data with Facebook ... The new terms and conditions formally renew the data processing powers and expand their content for the future."
In a statement, Caspar said: "The order now issued relates to the further processing of WhatsApp user data and is directed at Facebook. The worldwide criticism against the new terms of service should give reason to fundamentally rethink the consent mechanism once again. Without user trust, no business model based on data can be successful in the long run."
Nevertheless, Facebook doesn't really care, and the slow degradation of WhatsApp features will begin after people refuse to accept the revised wording. Signal is presumably gearing up for another flood of users. ®