Facebook ‘pauses’ WhatsApp data sharing after United Kingdom’s ICO intervention

After Facebook-owned WhatsApp announced its plans to share user data such as phone numbers and preferences with its parents, it has been at loggerheads with privacy groups from the world over.  Earlier in September, Facebook and WhatsApp were taken to a provincial High Court in India over its data sharing plans while Germany’s privacy watchdog has already banned Facebook or WhatsApp from sharing user data. Now Facebook and WhatsApp have been asked to ‘pause’ the data sharing plans till the Information Commissioner completes its investigations into privacy breach.

A controversial decision this summer by Facebook-owned messaging giant WhatsApp to share data of its users with its parent company — including for advertising purposes has put it at war with civil privacy groups as well as European privacy watchdogs.

In a strongly worded blog post information commissioner Elizabeth Denham noted that, “I had concerns that consumers weren’t being properly protected, and it’s fair to say the enquiries my team have made haven’t changed that view. I don’t think users have been given enough information about what Facebook plans to do with their information, and I don’t think WhatsApp has got valid consent from users to share the information. I also believe users should be given ongoing control over how their information is used, not just a 30 day window.”

“We’ve set out the law clearly to Facebook, and we’re pleased that they’ve agreed to pause using data from UK WhatsApp users for advertisements or product improvement purposes,” she adds.

Denham also hits out at “vague terms of service” for generally failing to give consumers “the protection we need”.

Readers would remember that the Facebook-owned WhatsApp updated its privacy policy in September which offered users an opt out of sharing their data with Facebook but default opted them in — unless they clicked to read the terms more closely and turned the sharing option off, having understood what the toggle represented. Users were also given a 30-day window to revoke consent via the settings in the app — after which they would be unable to withdraw consent.

Facebook spokesperson rejected criticism and said that, “WhatsApp designed its privacy policy and terms update to give users a clear and simple explanation of how the service works, as well as choice over how their data is used. These updates comply with applicable law, and follow the latest guidance from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.”

Facebook’s spokesperson added: “We hope to continue our detailed conversations with the ICO and other data protection officials, and we remain open to working collaboratively to address their questions.”

WhatsApp data sharing plans seem to be in jeopardy in Europe but it remains to be seen whether it is challenged in US courts.