WhatsApp and the indignation of its users

A change in WhatsApp’s privacy policy that allows the sharing of commercial information with Facebook’s platform in some specific cases triggered the largest attempt to disband users in the history of this communications platform, raising the number of downloads of other similar applications such as Telegram, Signal or Line.

Are users’ concerns about WhatsApp justified?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B.


Terrified by the notification of changes in the terms of use, thousands of WhatsApp users around the world decided to quit Mark Zuckerberg‘s communications platform, many of them downloaded Telegram and Signal, as alternative communication resources and in search of greater privacy guarantees.

For technology expert Alvaro Montes, who runs the technology blog Tecnivoros[1], WhatsApp committed the “sin” of making more visible what happens with user data.

But it is nothing new, Facebook has been using data from WhatsApp users for years when it acquired it in 2014, a time when several experts in information privacy warned of the risks it represented and there was particular concern about the monopolistic position that Facebook could acquire in the market.

The difference between then and the current episode is that, for the first time, a real step is being taken in terms of commercialization and monetization, through a strategy that aims, in simple terms, for the WhatsApp application, which has more than 2 billion users, to produce money by sharing information with Facebook and the corporation’s other applications, allowing its customers to offer users integrated products and services.

Change of privacy policy

WhatsApp’s legal move consisted basically in modifying the terms of use, authorizing a wider sharing of data in some specific cases, such as conversations with corporate clients, connection with companies, purchase actions, among others.

To better understand what these mean, Shira Ovide, technology section journalist at The New York Times [2], explains that:

First of all, Facebook creates a good space for people to connect with each other. That was Facebook’s original social network, then it bought sites like Instagram and WhatsApp. Once a lot of people are already there and comfortable, Facebook allows companies to mingle with people and maybe try to sell running shoes or bedsheets. Step three, the company finds ways to make those companies pay to reach people. That is the ticket to riches [2]”.

It is not about intercepting communications

As Ovide explains, it is not about WhatsApp intercepting users’ communications, but about the possibility of bringing users closer to companies by virtue of their tastes, interests, consumption habits and commercial background, all through a comprehensive Big Data management, without individualizing the information of any particular user.

In other words, WhatsApp can become, as it happens with Facebook, a platform for users to receive advertising offers or be offered the same on Instagram or Facebook itself based on data collected on WhatsApp, without this constituting a violation of the confidentiality of their communications.

A frustrated disbandment

Although hundreds of thousands of people began to download Telegram and Signal in recent weeks, few of them were able to abandon WhatsApp due to two fundamental reasons: First, messaging systems are successful as long as they are massive, that is, it is necessary that other people have it so that you can communicate, otherwise you will have a nice and secure application on your mobile that will be of no use to you.

Secondly, WhatsApp and Facebook have achieved flat rate agreements with many mobile operators around the world, that is, agreements so that their services do not consume data, which allows that even people who do not have data plans may enjoy these services for free, this service is not available with other operators, which is why many people who downloaded Telegram or Signal, eventually simply left the application on their phones but continued using WhatsApp, which as long as it manages to keep these two variables in their favor, will remain the king of communications even with the doubts that may generate in users.

Dominant market position, the real risk with Facebook and WhatsApp

As we have extensively analyzed in previous articles, Facebook is in the sights of the authorities of the first world for its dominant market position, the concentration of advertising and a possible monopoly of communications services.

A few weeks ago, the highest competition authority in the United States, FTC, after many warnings and investigations against Facebook, decided to formally file an antitrust lawsuit, a legal action that could have serious economic, fiscal and corporate consequences for this company [3].

The United Kingdom for its part followed the recommendations presented in a study contracted by the British Competition Authority, which recently led the government of this nation to formally announce that it will create a specialized agency in April to supervise the digital giants, which will receive the name of:  Digital Markets Unit, which will operate within the orbit of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and will be responsible for implementing a new Code of Conduct for digital platforms that have considerable market power, known in the jargon of economists as: “strategic market status”, thus preventing the Big Tech, especially Facebook, to continue abusing its dominant market position [4].

In conclusion, although it is legitimate to be concerned about privacy and the risks involved in the commercial flow of information between platforms, indeed the change of privacy policy recently made by the Facebook Corporation, does not differ from the way they have been marketing user data so far, while leaving the services of this company is not an easy task, since WhatsApp globally concentrates the largest number of active users and the flat rate agreements they have reached with many operators worldwide gives them an additional plus that becomes a very important attraction for all users.

[1] Technology blog: Tecnivoro.

[2] Article from The New York Times.

[3] CNN’s analysis of the lawsuit filed by the FTC against Facebook.

[4] Newspaper article on the new British authority.

Disclaimer: The published articles correspond to contextual reviews or analyses on digital transformation in the information society, duly supported by reliable and verified academic and/or journalistic sources.  The publications are NOT opinion articles and therefore the information they contain does not necessarily represent Andinalink’s position, nor that of their authors or the entities with which they are formally linked, regarding the topics, persons, entities or organizations mentioned in the text.