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WhatsApp defers privacy policy update by three months, buys time to deal with fallout

WhatsApp, Threema

After facing considerable backlash and finding itself in the middle of a heated debate about privacy, WhatsApp has deferred the application of its updated privacy policy by three months. The Facebook-owned messaging app had sent notifications to its users, telling them they would have to accept the new policy updates by February 8 if they wanted to continue using WhatsApp — users now have till May 15 to accept the new terms.

WhatsApp said in a blog post that it was giving users more time to review the updates. It added that no account would be suspended or deleted on February 8 for not accepting the new terms. The company will then alert people “gradually”, asking them to review the policy at their own place.

“We’re now moving back the date on which people will be asked to review and accept the terms. No one will have their account suspended or deleted on February 8. We’re also going to do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp. We’ll then go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15.” — WhatsApp 

Once again, WhatsApp repeated that the privacy policy updated had no impact on the security of personal or group messages. It said that it can’t see neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see private messages. However, as we have noted before, the security of personal or group messages was never under question. Personal and group messages are protected by end-to-end encryption.

MediaNama’s comment: WhatsApp has only bought time for itself with this deferment, perhaps hoping that the debate will run its course over the next three months. At no point has the company said that it will review the new policy. It has not addressed the main concerns — that of freer data flow to Facebook. The new policy allows for a better integration between WhatsApp and Facebook, and the company seems unlikely to change this. 

In continuation, WhatsApp said that the updates were largely concerning the sharing of data related to WhatsApp business accounts. The updates provide further transparency about how we collect and use data, it said. “While not everyone shops with a business on WhatsApp today, we think that more people will choose to do so in the future and it’s important people are aware of these services. This update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook.” [emphasis added]

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Over the past week, WhatsApp has taken out full-page ads in major Indian newspapers. However, the company has been unable to plug an out-migration of privacy-seeking users to Signal and Telegram. Another contentious issue has been the fact that Indian users don’t have an option to opt out of the data sharing agreement with Facebook, an option afforded to users in the European Union.

WhatsApp is the second major tech company in recent times to backtrack on a policy after public backlash. Last year, Google had deferred the enforcement of its 30% cut on in-app purchases in India by more than two years after Indian startup founders expressed their reservations, and held calls with MEITY to discuss Google’s apparent dominance in India.

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