Facebook's WhatsApp Deal Under Fire - InformationWeek
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Facebook's WhatsApp Deal Under Fire

Privacy advocates file FTC complaint to block Facebook's $19 billion acquisition of messaging service WhatsApp, calling it unfair and deceptive.

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Two privacy groups filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission to block Facebook's $19 billion acquisition of messaging service WhatsApp. The groups want Facebook to provide more insight into how it intends to use data from the app's 450 million users.

According to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Facebook's purchase might be "an unfair and deceptive trade practice" because WhatsApp assures users that it won't collect data for advertising purposes. Facebook, the privacy groups believe, will break that promise.

"Facebook routinely makes use of user information for advertising purposes and has made clear that it intends to incorporate the data of WhatsApp users into the user profiling business model," the complaintsaid. "The proposed acquisition will therefore violate WhatsApp users' understanding of their exposure to online advertising and constitutes an unfair and deceptive trade practice, subject to investigation by the Federal Trade Commission."

[Get a grip on your Facebook account. Read 10 Most Misunderstood Facebook Privacy Facts.]

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last month that nothing will change for WhatsApp users following the acquisition and that the business will continue to operate separately. A Facebook spokesperson reiterated those sentiments in a statement: "Facebook's goal is to bring more connectivity and utility to the world by delivering core Internet services efficiently and affordably -- this partnership will help make that happen."

EPIC said Facebook's track record indicates otherwise. "Facebook regularly incorporates data from companies it has acquired," it said in a statement.

The complaint by EPIC and CDD asks regulators to investigate the deal "specifically with regard to the ability of Facebook to access WhatsApp's store of user mobile phone numbers and metadata." It cites Facebook's billion-dollar acquisition of photo-sharing site Instagram in 2012 as an example of a company's privacy policies that were amended post-acquisition.

WhatsApp's strict privacy policy lies in stark contrast to Facebook's practices. WhatsApp states that it does not collect names, email addresses, or phone numbers, nor does it store messages on its servers unless they go undelivered. Those, too, are deleted after 30 days.

"We do not use your mobile phone number or other Personally Identifiable Information to send commercial or marketing messages without your consent or except as part of a specific program or feature for which you will have the ability to opt-in or opt-out," it reads.

Facebook's past has been wrought with privacy problems. In 2011, a lawsuit accused the social network of profiting off users' names, photographs, and identities in ads without their consent. The settlement awarded $20 million to the 600,000 Facebook users affected.

Most recently, privacy groups rallied against the social network after it proposed changes to its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and Data Use Policy. These updates clarified that by simply using Facebook, users granted the social network permission to use their names, profile pictures, content, and information in conjunction with ads and sponsored content without payment.

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Kristin Burnham currently serves as InformationWeek.com's Senior Editor, covering social media, social business, IT leadership and IT careers. Prior to joining InformationWeek in July 2013, she served in a number of roles at CIO magazine and CIO.com, most recently as senior ... View Full Bio

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Joe Stanganelli
Joe Stanganelli,
User Rank: Author
3/9/2014 | 11:31:39 AM
This complaint has a first name; it's O-S-C-A-R...
I've worked in consumer law.  If this article represents the facts correctly, then this complaint strikes me as baloney -- a marketing gimmick for EPIC more than anything else.  Companies with privacy policies get acquired by competitors all the time, and there are ways of managing the protection of consumer information.

Of course, if Facebook DID use WhatsApp user data for marketing purposes without providing a clear opt-out, THEN a lawsuit would be timely.  But until such a thing happens, the whole thing strikes me as frivolous.

Unless I'm missing something?  Maybe I'll check out the complaint myself to see.
Susan Fourtané
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
3/9/2014 | 4:34:49 AM
Re: Will you still use it?

"I don't believe Facebook bought it to just change nothing and to gain nothing. After all, they paid $19billion for it."

Exactly. Facebook is not precisely a model on respecting users' privacy. Facebook will use all the data it collects as it pleases to get a good ROI out of the $19 billion. 

Susan Fourtané
Susan Fourtané,
User Rank: Author
3/9/2014 | 4:28:54 AM
Re: already deleated

I believe more users will delete WhatsApp, just as you did. 

I am not a user of the app, and don't plan to become one. 

User Rank: Apprentice
3/8/2014 | 10:00:33 PM
already deleated
I already delete whatsapp and switch t telegram.org and Google hangouts
User Rank: Ninja
3/8/2014 | 11:51:07 AM
Re: Will you still use it?
I'm not a WhatsApp user but I don't believe Facebook bought it to just change nothing and to gain nothing. After all, they paid $19billion for it. They may not do it right away but I would tell WhatsApp users to beware.
User Rank: Ninja
3/8/2014 | 11:01:59 AM
How is this a legal issue? Change the ToS, make users click an 'agree' button, and do whatever they want with the data, within legal boundaries of course.

Maybe folks have confused 'legal' and 'against ToS', like people on the World of Warcraft forums do. I am not knocking gamers, or that game, I played it for years. But there is a growing segment of the population who genuinely does not see a difference. They also think that if the owner of the forum removes someone's post, its a violation of free speech. Some very strange notions growing out there!
Kristin Burnham
Kristin Burnham,
User Rank: Author
3/8/2014 | 9:25:22 AM
Will you still use it?
If you're a WhatsApp user, does Facebook's acquisition of the company make you think twice about using the service? Let's hear your thoughts.
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