Consumers’ association files complaint against WhatsApp

The Consumers’ Association, seven other European consumer organizations and the umbrella organization BEUC have filed a complaint against WhatsApp. The organizations believe that the makers of the chat application are exerting too much pressure to accept the new terms of use and privacy policy. It is up to the European Commission and the European Network of Consumer Authorities to investigate the complaint and make a decision.

WhatsApp’s new terms of use and privacy have been stirring things up for quite some time. In January, the company presented controversial conditions. It stated that WhatsApp was going to share user data with Facebook. Specifically, it involved things like IP addresses, device data, location data, interests and contact information. Initially, WhatsApp threatened to delete users’ accounts if they did not agree to the new privacy terms before February 8.

WhatsApp users complained, mainly because they felt they had no choice but to accept the terms. The chat service decided to move the effective date to May 15. This gave the company more time to provide text and explanations about the renewed privacy conditions.

Anyone who did not accept the terms and conditions before May 15 risked being unable to use their account and eventually even losing it. That caused another commotion. WhatsApp went back on its words and said it would not delete accounts. However, on the support page, WhatsApp reported that users could only use a limited number of features of the chat service after some time. In May, WhatsApp also backed down on these words, saying it would not impose any restrictions on the app’s functionality if users decline the terms.

The Consumers’ Association, various European consumer organizations and the umbrella organization BEUC are not pleased with how WhatsApp is approaching the matter. In their view, WhatsApp is bombarding users with ‘intrusive notifications’ to accept the new terms of use and privacy. The content and repetition create ‘unnecessary pressure’ and hinders their freedom of choice. And that is against European rules.

The authorities also complain that the conditions are not transparent and difficult to understand. It is impossible for consumers to foresee the consequences for their privacy if they agree to the new conditions. “WhatsApp threatens to deny consumers access to the app if they do not accept the terms. While it is not at all clear what they give permission for,” says Sandra Molenaar, director of the Consumers’ Association. “WhatsApp limits consumers’ freedom of choice: if you don’t accept, you can no longer use Whatsapp. Moreover, the contract conditions are not transparent. And that is against the law.”

Molenaar emphasizes that an investigation is already underway into WhatsApp’s privacy policy. “That makes the need for intervention by the authorities extra great. WhatsApp must respect the rights of consumers.”

Incidentally, nothing will change for European WhatsApp users, regardless of whether they accept the new terms of use and privacy. European privacy laws and regulations prohibit data sharing between subsidiaries and parent companies. This means that WhatsApp is not allowed to hand over user data to Facebook. The Hamburgische Beauftragte für Datenschutz und Informationsfreiheit (HmbBfDI), the German regional privacy watchdog, recently confirmed this .

The German regulator added that WhatsApp and Facebook are vague and unclear in the new terms of use and privacy. For example, according to the HmbBfDI, the new conditions state that Facebook has the right to collect data from subsidiaries, while it previously indicated that it would not do so. It does not say anything about a legitimate interest in processing this data. Mark Zuckerberg’s social network also indicates that it is interested in data from young people. A paragraph about WhatsApp not sharing data with Facebook has also been omitted from the final text.

“Users are confronted by WhatsApp with non-transparent conditions for extensive data transfer,” writes the HmbBfDI. The regulator fears that data sharing under the new conditions can still be introduced step-by-step in the future if users agree to this now.

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