Just as 2bn-plus active users wake up and go to sleep on WhatsApp across the world, the messaging behemoth has more than a quarter of the global population in its fold.
For a perspective, Telegram accounts for 400mn and Signal around 20mn monthly active users.
Armed with that unmatched leverage, WhatsApp is now reserving the right to share data it collects about its users with its broader parent network, Facebook, which includes Instagram, regardless of whether you have accounts or profiles there.
Facebook says it needs our data to help operate and improve its offerings.
But more broadly, it’s about monetising WhatsApp data in the ledgers of the social media giant. Almost all of the $21.5bn in revenue Facebook generated in its third quarter of 2020 came from ads, and there are none in WhatsApp, according to a Bloomberg report.
The company wants to be able to serve more targeted ads to people on Facebook and Instagram by also knowing their usage habits on WhatsApp.
Facebook says it cannot read WhatsApp. The conversations are encrypted end-to-end, meaning not even WhatsApp itself can access them.
However, by using WhatsApp, users may be sharing with Facebook their contacts list, location, financial information and usage data, as well as the phone’s unique identifier, among other types of so-called metadata.
The fallout, for sure, is widening.
Technology billionaire Elon Musk has endorsed rival app Signal to his 42mn Twitter followers.
The registration service for Signal crashed after an influx of new users overwhelmed its servers.
The Turkish Competition Board said on Monday it launched an investigation into WhatsApp and its owner Facebook.
To address the growing global concerns, WhatsApp says the change in its policy “does not affect privacy of messages with friends or family”. “Instead, this update includes changes related to messaging a business on WhatsApp”.
But WhatsApp’s latest data policy change doesn’t come with a one-size-fits-all global reach.
There’s a difference in the text for Europe compared with the rest of the world.
European data protection authorities, which under the European Union’s strict privacy laws, are empowered to fine companies as much as 4% of global annual revenue if they breach the bloc’s rules.
EU antitrust authorities in 2017 fined Facebook $134mn for misleading regulators during a 2014 review of the WhatsApp takeover. Facebook, in fact, had told EU regulators during the review it technically wasn’t possible to combine WhatsApp data with its other services.
In a wider sense, much of WhatsApp’s latest policy is broadly in line with what came before. The option to share data with Facebook has existed for years, but it was just that: optional. From February 8, it becomes mandatory.
Across the world, there have for long been calls for better regulatory safeguards over cross-platform data sharing by the Big Tech.
The WhatsApp update should also serve as an occasion for social media users to think over what they put online and their rights over their personal data on the Net.
And here’s the old saying: “If you are not paying for some product or service, you are the product or service.”
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