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EU regulators fine WhatsApp for not being transparent enough with users

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission imposed the fine that was the second-largest one under EU’s privacy law.

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) fined Facebook-owned WhatsApp 225 million euros (USD 266) for violating the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is the second-largest fine under the bloc’s privacy law and it comes a month after another US tech company, Amazon, revealed that it was fined a record 746 million euros.

“We disagree with the decision today regarding the transparency we provided to people in 2018 and the penalties are entirely disproportionate,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told MediaNama. WhatsApp will appeal the decision, the spokesperson added.

Why was WhatsApp fined?

An investigation started in 2018 by DPC found that WhatsApp did not tell EU citizens enough about how their personal data is collected or used. “This includes information provided to data subjects about the processing of information between WhatsApp and other Facebook companies,” DPC said. Regulators appeared to have an issue with the level of detail provided by WhatsApp in its previous privacy policy. According to the IrishTimes, the messaging platform provided only 41 percent of the prescribed information by GDPR.

According to Wall Street Journal, DPC had initially proposed a fine of up to 50 million euros but after objections from other competition watchdogs of other EU countries, the dispute resolution process was triggered and a board of all EU privacy regulators voted to order DPC to levy a bigger fine. DPC is the lead regulator because WhatsApp’s European headquarters is located in Dublin.

Apart from the fine, WhatsApp has been given three months (reduced from 6 months that DPC initially contemplated) to clearly communicate its data collection and usage policies in accordance with the provisions of GDPR including clearly communicating with non-users that their phone numbers may be uploaded to the app by their contacts. But adding more information to its already length privacy policy could make the policy longer and more complex to read.

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According to GDPR provisions, this decision can be appealed in Irish courts as well as directly with the EU’s Court of Justice.

WhatsApp facing CCI probe in India

The Competition Commission of India (CCI) is currently investigating to ascertain the “full extent, scope, and impact” of data sharing under WhatsApp’s new privacy policy and terms of use.

In January this year, WhatsApp began alerting its users globally with an in-app notification about updates to its terms of service and privacy policies. The new policies are largely expanded and better-explained versions of their existing conditions, albeit with some additions. The most notable addition includes WhatsApp’s integration into the Facebook family of products and more data-sharing with Facebook. 

In July, after regulatory and legal pressure, WhatsApp told the Delhi High Court that it has put its new privacy policy on hold until the data protection bill comes into force and it would not limit the functionality for users who haven’t agreed to the new privacy policy.

Status of India’s data protection bill

The draft Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill, which is India’s version of GDPR, will impact how businesses collect and use data about Indian users and the rights that users have over the data that is collected about them.

The Bill was first introduced in the Winter Session of the Indian Parliament in 2019 and was referred to a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC). The JPC was expected to present the report to the parliament in the current Monsoon Session but was granted an exemption till the Winter Session. This is the third such extension that the JPC has received.

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