Commentary: What’s behind the outrage over WhatsApp’s new terms and conditions

Commentary: What’s behind the outrage over WhatsApp’s new terms and conditions

The struggle to start over on a new platform is real but is the updated data policy from WhatsApp a storm in a tea cup, asks technology writer Alfred Siew.

An illustration photo shows a man holding a smart phone with a Facebook logo as its screen wallpape
FILE PHOTO: An illustration photo shows a man holding a smart phone with a Facebook logo as its screen wallpaper in front of a WhatsApp messenger logo, in Zenica Feb  20, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)

SINGAPORE: If you’re reading this after someone shared it over WhatsApp, or its parent company Facebook’s social media network, I don’t blame you. Change is hard.

Despite all the bad news that has surrounded WhatsApp’s changes to its privacy policy this past week, many people you see on the messaging service will still be sharing pictures and updating friends about their lives with it.

A report on respected technology site, Ars Technica, last week revealed that WhatsApp is forcing people to accept its sharing of personal data such as their phone number and profile name with Facebook, something they could opt out of previously.

That’s sure to raise eyebrows, if you consider the poor reputation Facebook has had of late. 

The social media network has been blamed for influencing American elections and even helping to spread the misinformation that culminated in an unprecedented riot at the United States Capitol last week.

READ: WhatsApp stresses privacy as users flock to rivals Telegram and Signal

So, why are so many of your friends and family still using WhatsApp? This is down to network effects, which mean that the usefulness of a service is determined by the number of people using it.

WhatsApp had 2 billion users before the massive spike in downloads for rival messaging services Telegram and Signal this week. It takes time and more importantly, effort, for these users to move.

Perhaps more important is the conflicting information that has been shared on WhatsApp’s new privacy policies, by both news sites and the company itself.

Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram phone apps
Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram will continue as stand alone apps, the report said. (Photo: AFP)

CONFUSING COMMUNICATION

Firstly, it is not just now that WhatsApp is sharing information with Facebook to “operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services and their offerings".

In 2016, WhatsApp gave users a one-time ability to opt out of this, reported tech publication Ars Technica. This will no longer be an option come Feb 8, which is why those who have been careful about their privacy are outraged now.

However, for many users who have just agreed to whatever terms and conditions (T&Cs) are presented to them over the years and not cared at all, the new changes don’t really matter as much.

That’s because they had already consented to the sharing earlier.

There is another new thing that is introduced in the privacy policy: WhatsApp may send marketing messages to you when you communicate with a business that you have bought tickets or clothes from, for example.

The company promises that you can manage these communications. It also says that it will honour your choices, according to its updated privacy policy.

This is what it has been trying to emphasise in the past few days, in a sort of belated damage control. And unfortunately, for a communications-related company, its messages are confusing.

READ: Commentary: Facebook’s eleventh-hour suspension of Trump’s account raises questions about its motives

They don’t adequately address the original issue brought up by the Ars Technica story, for example. Instead, they have gone on a tangent and talked about the policy regarding business communications.

It also doesn’t help that the privacy policy that WhatsApp has posted is long and rather confusing as well. One example is the paragraph here:

The choices you have: If you are an existing user, you can choose not to have your WhatsApp account information shared with Facebook to improve your Facebook ads and products experiences. Existing users who accept our updated Terms and Privacy Policy will have an additional 30 days to make this choice by going to Settings > Account.

Really? I went to my phone to check, and there doesn’t seem to any option to do this. Or is this referring to the new business communications that was just announced?

NO WAY OUT OF THE FAUSTIAN BARGAIN

Is there no way out of the earlier Faustian bargain I had already made to share information with Facebook?

So, here’s the uncomfortable truth: For convenience and ease of use, many users have long crossed many of the red lines we claim to be outraged about now.

FILE PHOTO: The Telegram messaging app logo is seen on a website in Singapore
FILE PHOTO: The Telegram messaging app logo is seen on a website in Singapore November 19, 2015. REUTERS/Thomas White

We have long become the product ourselves, to be atomised and marketed to digitally, once we signed on for these free (or nearly free) services.

To be fair, WhatsApp has promised to never peek into your messages or share them with Facebook. Those are encrypted, as originally promised, so if that is the baseline you can accept, then you might worry less.

Still, it is good to have consistent pressure on Big Tech companies from time to time, to ensure that users get more clarity and control. Yes, those two Cs are important as we lead increasingly digital lives, from the time we are born to the time we expire.

READ: Commentary: Imagine a world with more than one Facebook. Here’s why you can’t

Choice is also important, given the growing market power of today’s Big Tech companies, which makes it hard for users to disconnect from them.

As for me, I’m still using WhatsApp because family and friends are keeping to it. Ironically, I had been one of the slowest to take it up years ago, when friends were sending me SMS prompts to switch over.

Last week, I downloaded and started using Signal, started by a co-founder of WhatsApp who left the company. I’ve also reinstalled Telegram, another messaging app liked by those who don’t trust WhatsApp and Facebook.

READ: Commentary: Telegram, the powerful COVID-19 choice of communications by many governments

How do I know these services protect my privacy better, beyond their reputation and their (slightly clearer) T&Cs? Well, a lot still depends on trust.

And that’s the rub, really. Trust is a hard-earned commodity and even WhatsApp is learning that lesson. You can lose customers as fast as you win them over virally.

For a surprisingly high number of users, WhatsApp’s latest announcements have added to the deep mistrust they have of Facebook. And that is one deep rut to climb out of.

Listen to experts break down the changes to Whatsapp's terms and conditions and discuss the developments leading up to the point where "all hell broke loose" on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:

Alfred Siew is the editor of Techgoondu. This commentary first appeared on the technology news website.

Source: CNA/cr

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