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European Commission tells WhatsApp to clarify its Privacy Policy change by end of February 2022

The same privacy policy is under investigation by CCI, but the Delhi High Court gave WhatsApp until March to respond to notices

The European Commission and the network of national EU consumer authorities have given WhatsApp until February end to clarify the change the messaging platform made in 2021 to its terms of service and privacy policy, a press release by the Commission said.

“WhatsApp must ensure that users understand what they agree to and how their personal data is used, in particular where it is shared with business partners. I expect from WhatsApp to fully comply with EU rules that protect consumers and their privacy.” – Didier Reynders, Commissioner for Justice

In a statement to Reuters, a WhatsApp spokesperson said:

“We look forward to explaining to the European Commission how we protect our users’ privacy in compliance with our obligations under EU law.”

This same change in privacy policy is also under investigation by the Competition Commission of India for the impact it has on data sharing. However, the Delhi High Court earlier this month extended the time given to Facebook and Whatsapp to respond to notices sent to them by CCI until March on the grounds that the Data Protection Bill is yet to be finalised. In a hearing in July last year, WhatsApp told the Court that it has put its new privacy policy on hold until the Bill comes into force and it would not limit the functionality for users who haven’t agreed to the new privacy policy.

What prompted the European Commission’s notice?

The Commission was acting on complaints received by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and eight of its members.

In a statement to TechCrunch, BEUC’s deputy director-general, Ursula Pachl, said:

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“WhatsApp bombarded users for months with persistent pop-up messages. What’s more, consumers didn’t know what they were being pushed to accept. WhatsApp has been deliberately vague about this, laying the ground for far-reaching data processing without valid consent from consumers.”

The European Commission hopes to gain clarity on whether “sufficiently clear information is given to consumers on the consequences of their decision to accept or decline the company’s new terms of service; the fairness of WhatsApp’s in-app notifications prompting consumers to accept the new terms and privacy policy; and whether consumers have an adequate opportunity to become acquainted with the new terms before accepting them.”

The Commission also noted that it is concerned about the exchange of users’ personal data between WhatsApp and third parties or other Facebook/Meta companies.

What is the new privacy policy?

The new policies, which were first notified in January 2021, 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. 

It allows WhatsApp to share any information identified in the policy’s extensive “Information We Collect” section. Additionally, messages to WhatsApp Business accounts could potentially be shared with third-party service providers, which could include Facebook itself.

This free flow of data between Facebook apps would theoretically allow the company to understand user preferences and profiles, helping them improve their ad targeting algorithms.

In March, the CCI had taken up an investigation into the privacy policy suo motu to ascertain “the full extent, scope and impact” of data sharing under WhatsApp’s new privacy policy and terms of use. The Commission had said that WhatsApp has prima facie violated provisions of the Competition Act.

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