WhatsApp's new privacy policy shows the need for data control

19 February 2021 Consultancy.uk 4 min. read
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The furore surrounding changes to WhatsApp’s terms of service have reportedly lost the application millions of users since the turn of the year. While the planned changes are now on hold due to a mass exodus from the platform, Innopay CEO Shikko Nijland believes that the controversy illustrates the need for consumers to be given back control of their data.

At the start of the year, WhatsApp announced it would be implementing new terms for users of its application. Originally slated for February 8th, the plans quickly became a bone of contention among users around the world – as while the company still maintains that the update was intended to enable a new set of features around business messaging, and “make clarifications and provide greater transparency” around the company’s pre-existing policies, huge swathes of its user base became concerned that the changes would open them up to spyware.

While users in the EU would largely be unaffected by such changes thanks to the Union’s stringent data protection laws, fears of the Facebook-owned app mining user data have continued to grow across many other geographies – most overtly in India. India’s Supreme Court even recently admonished WhatsApp over its user privacy policies – which allegedly state India’s 400 million users must consent to their data being shared between WhatsApp and Facebook, or lose access to the app.

WhatsApp's new privacy policy shows the need for data controlThis is something which WhatsApp still denies – with Niamh Sweeney, WhatsApp’s director of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, having told the UK’s Home Affairs Committee, “There are no changes to our data sharing with Facebook anywhere in the world,” while WhatsApp itself has stated on its website that, “We want to be clear that the policy update does not affect the privacy of your messages with friends or family in any way.” WhatsApp is even reported by The Guardian to be paying to advertise as much on Google, under searches for “WhatsApp privacy policy”.

Despite this, WhatsApp has been forced to delay the implementation of the new terms, following the exodus of millions of concerned users. Over the first three weeks of January, rival app Signal has gained 7.5 million users globally, according to figures shared by the UK Parliament, while Telegram gained 25 million.

In both cases, the increase appears to have come at WhatsApp’s expense – with The Guardian also reporting that WhatsApp fell from the eighth most downloaded app in the UK at the beginning of the month to the 23rd by 12 January. By contrast, Signal wasn’t even in the top 1,000 apps in the UK on 6 January, yet by 9 January it was the most downloaded app in the country.

While WhatsApp has now delayed the implementation of its new policy until May 15th, Innopay CEO Shikko Nijland believes that the controversy highlights legitimate concerns among the public regarding the control of their own data. According to him, one line of text about the company respecting “strong privacy principles” has been removed from WhatsApp’s newest Terms of Service, while if users decide to delete the app from their device, it would not automatically mean that WhatsApp deletes the private data it already holds about the user – something users are clearly extremely wary of.

Nijland explained, “The only way to ensure this is for users to delete their account using the in-app feature – and even then, some data will remain with the company, such as information related to groups created and copies of messages sent to other active users… As part of the Data Sovereignty Now (DSN) movement, we strongly reject this move. It is our firm belief that users must have ‘data sovereignty’, i.e. control over their own data and the freedom to migrate their data easily to another platform whenever they wish.”

According to Nijland, Big Tech firms currently benefit from an unfair competitive advantage derived from their dominance and access to huge swathes of data. Without addressing data-sovereignty, this cannot be prevented, and such firms will be able to continue to exert ever greater control over their users’ information.

He concluded, “We believe that this can only be achieved by adjusting the ‘data benefit balance’ back in the user’s favour. Data sovereignty holds the key to transforming the tech landscape and taking the digital economy to the next level so that the size and dominance of a platform is no longer the only paradigm… In a data-sovereign world, users would no longer face such a stark ultimatum if a company decided to update its terms of service. Instead, they would have a third choice – to move to another platform and still be able to communicate with all their contacts, irrespective of which platform they are all using.”