SINGAPORE: Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s announcement about the latest updates to its terms and conditions last week resulted in public backlash, as well as a significant number of users reportedly switching to Signal and Telegram.
The exodus was so serious WhatsApp had to issue a further clarification to explain the changes.
To be clear, many major concerns surrounding the new terms and conditions were simply untrue.
WhatsApp uses end-to-end encryption, and this has not changed. All our messages and chat groups remain safe and private to you and me. Neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can look into our chats.
Additionally, even though WhatsApp has information about the mobile numbers using the app, they do not record who we are interacting with on the platform and consequently, will not be sharing this data with Facebook.
So if you are worried about that secret chat on WhatsApp that no one else should know about, fret not.
Most users are still unclear over what sort of information WhatsApp has always collected and what the recent, exact changes are.
But such updates from Facebook have come under greater scrutiny in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, perhaps the most serious case of data misuse enabled by a social media company to date.
The growth of Big Tech in recent years have also changed our relationship with social media platforms. Many of are uncomfortable with how they’ve become heavyweights in shaping everyday interactions and public discourse.
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Simply put, even for WhatsApp with a user base of 2 billion, trust should not be assumed with greater use.
Even with trusted policies in place, data can be compromised because of malicious attacks – a lesson that many Singaporeans learned in 2018 with the SingHealth data breach.
Concerns about the security of data, especially if they are collected and stored in centralised servers, have also grown more pervasive compared to just two years ago.
A REASONABLE BUSINESS IMPERATIVE
It is worth noting the changes to WhatsApp are in fact, strategically aligned with the business model of Facebook, the company that owns WhatsApp.
Facebook offers a “free” service to end users like you and me, but earns its keep via advertising revenue.
For a fee, online furniture shops get to show you their latest catalogue if you follow or like pages about interior design. If you own a business and is looking to expand to Thailand, you can also pay to show your advertisements to users living there.
As a platform, Facebook has played an instrumental role in helping businesses to grow online. But since Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014, it has not been able to monetise the popular instant messaging platform as WhatsApp charges nothing for its services.
This move to try and monetise WhatsApp at some point is therefore not surprising.
THE PROBLEM WITH INFORMED CONSENT
As a researcher who have been studying social media platforms for some time, the incident has highlighted a number of tensions.
Citizens currently live in a digitalised environment where much data is being collected about them. Privacy settings and policies governing data use have become much more complex.
Yet, despite these growing complexities, the method by which users are informed about changes to terms and conditions of use has not changed.
READ: The Big Read: What’s the big deal with data privacy? Thorny, complex issues confront citizens and governments
While tech companies have every right to make changes to their platforms, the burden is unfairly and disproportionately on end users to read, understand and accept the new terms.
Big Tech companies say they have fulfilled legal requirements to achieve informed consent by showing users the updated terms and conditions and having them agree.
But users cannot always be reasonably expected to understand legal and technical jargon, even if they are written in a language native to users.
There is also the question of users who may not be English-speaking or literate. How will their consent be meaningful? Can there be a better way of obtaining consent from users, while educating the public at the same time about data literacy and privacy?
A MIDDLE GROUND?
With the changes, Facebook is hoping to make it easier for businesses to interact with WhatsApp users. What is missing in this pursuit, however, is the presence of options for end users.
Users are faced with rather dichotomous choices: Accept the terms, or leave the platform. Many have gone for the latter in the past week by moving to Signal or Telegram.
The strategy, which involves time and effort, can work, but only effective if your contacts migrate to the same platform as you.
At the same time, what makes us think other platforms have better privacy settings? Do users fully understand the data collected by the new platforms during the rush to switch?
Won’t the terms and conditions of alternative platforms change as well? What other alternatives do users have other than migrating to a new platform every time they do not accept the new terms?
As a middle ground, can a third option emerge where users can still stay on a platform like WhatsApp without agreeing to the updated terms, perhaps by paying a small fee? WhatsApp tried to charge a US$1 annual fee some time back after all.
But there is that tiny issue of persuading users to pay for a service that has been free for so long.
A SILVER LINING
I see a silver lining in these developments. From a resilience perspective, the issue of growing distrust about tech can be productive.
Distrust can motivate users to pay attention to what platforms are doing with their data and be more proactive in learning about different ways to protect their personal data. Very much like how we would be mindful about our valuables when we are in an unfamiliar environment.
But persistent distrust can also be counterproductive, especially when it turns into resignation that privacy no longer exist, or general cynicism about digital technologies. In the long run, it can also undermine support for future innovations that require data collection and use.
We are just turning a page in making sense of our technology use.
In today’s current environment where sharing personal data can become a powerful force to unleash new innovation that improves people’s lives and has become a common facet of most digital applications, it is not too late to start rethinking how privacy concerns by users can be better addressed.
Listen to the author and a lawyer break down WhatsApp's new terms of service on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
Natalie Pang is a senior lecturer at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore.