WhatsApp: turning point? Not yet

WhatsApp: turning point? Not yet

For some time now we have been talking about the new conditions of use of the widespread messaging and VoIP WhatsApp app. As is well known, in fact, between the end of December and the beginning of January, users from all over the world received a note informing them that, shortly thereafter, changes to the terms of use of the software would take place.

In Italy, the fact aroused considerable interest and apprehension, so much so that an intense debate was born on the subject that led a large part of public opinion to question the real meaning of the new contractual clauses.

Confidentiality, purposes pursued, possibility to control the geographical circulation and the recipients of one's personal data are some of the topics discussed. Much of the concern, in particular, stems from the fact that WhatsApp was bought by Facebook in 2014 and this link has led some to fear the possibility that personal data collected on WhatsApp could be used for commercial purposes on the social network.

The new regime, therefore, should have entered into force next Monday, February 8, but for now, and at least until May 15 this year, everything remains firm. What led to this spin of the Menlo Park company? Before seeing it, let's think locally about what are (or should be) the much discussed news.

The new Terms of use

First of all, it should be clarified that the changes to the terms of use and the privacy policy of WhatsApp (i.e., respectively, to the contract that regulates the with which the service is provided and the document that informs users on how their personal data are processed) are not the same everywhere: there are, in fact, two versions, depending on whether or not you are within the so-called "European Region ”, Which includes all EU countries plus a number of others (we leave you the link here for the case if you want to know which regime you are subject to).

In the European Region the changes should be moderate - especially when compared with the rest of the world - but, at the moment, the conditional is imposed: as we will see better later, in fact, the communications of the Company were not very clear, so much so that the Italian Guarantor intervened on this point.

WhatsApp privacy But let's get back to the news: as WhatsApp clarified also in various notes and in the FAQs released for the occasion, WhatsApp should not share the user's personal data with Facebook in order to allow the social network to improve its own products or advertisements.

In particular, the data relating to the people called or to whom the messages are sent, the position shared with another user, the contacts in the address book and the registration to group chats should not be shared. The company, then, is keen to reiterate that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can access the content of exchanged messages or listen to calls made, since end-to-end encryption is in use.

Business messaging

In the event that companies use Facebook and WhatsApp services, however, another element must be added. In this regard, the focus of attention in recent weeks has been, among others, the WhatsApp Business Apps - designed for small businesses that need a means of direct communication with their customers - and the hosting services offered. from Facebook.

As for the latter, please note that Facebook offers hosting services to companies to manage WhatsApp chats with customers. As explained by WhatsApp in the aforementioned FAQ, therefore:

"if you communicate with a company by phone, email or WhatsApp, the company can see your conversations and could use this information for marketing purposes, which could also include advertisements on Facebook ".

And again, again with regard to Companies:

"on the ads you see on Facebook, there may be a button to send a message to the business via WhatsApp. If you have installed WhatsApp on your phone, you will have the option to send a message to the business. The way you interact with these ads can help Facebook personalize the ads you will see in the future ”.

The rest of the world

It would therefore be the use of personal data resulting from specific and voluntary interactions.

It would not seem, therefore, that significant changes to the current functioning of WhatsApp in the European Region should take place soon. But future changes are not excluded.

Emblematic, in this regard, is what is reported on the WhatsApp site, where it is stated that "If in the future we decide to share such data (editor's note: WhatsApp account information) with Facebook companies for this purpose ( ed. advertising), we will do so only after reaching an agreement with the Irish Data Protection Commission or IDPC (Irish Data Protection Commission) on a mechanism that will allow such use in the future ". The reference to the Irish authority is due to the fact that WhatsApp Ireland provides the service to European users.

If for some, therefore, this statement may be reassuring, for others it will sound sinister, also in light of the fact that the new terms of use applied to the rest of the world state that: "As part of the Facebook, WhatsApp receives information from such companies and shares it with other Facebook companies. We may use the information we receive from them, and vice versa they may use the information we share with them, to make available, provide, improve, understand, personalize, support and market our Services and their offerings, including products from companies of Facebook".

What has aroused concern and scandal in Europe, therefore, seems to be peacefully admitted in jurisdictions with less stringent regulations than our GDPR.

The postponement to May 15, 2021

Let's answer the initial question. As you may have noticed, to illustrate what we have seen so far, we had to refer several times to the FAQs or to the explanatory notes issued by WhatsApp to clarify the extent of the changes. And it is not a case.

As stated by the Italian Guarantor with a note dated 14 January last, in fact "from the terms of service and the new information it is not (ed is) possible for users to understand what the changes have been introduced, nor to clearly understand which data processing will actually be carried out by the messaging service after 8 February. This information does not therefore appear to be suitable for allowing Whatsapp users to express a free and conscious will ".

Even this consideration led the Authority to submit the matter to the Edpb, the Board that brings together all the European privacy authorities, while reserving, in any case, to intervene urgently.

It is clear, therefore, why the Menlo Park Company has already issued a blogpost the following day with which, having recognized that "our recent update has created a bit of confusion", announced the postponement to 15 May of the entry into force of the new conditions of use, in the hope of being able to provide the necessary clarifications and reassurance in the meantime.


It seems, therefore, that at least for the moment the much discussed changes to the conditions of use of WhatsApp have suffered a setback in the European Region. Undoubtedly, the lack of clarity of the contractual documentation of the software and the complexity of the issues involved played a fundamental role, in addition to the timely intervention of the Guarantor Authority. It should also be said, however, that this affair seems to have manifested a wide and widespread sensitivity in the public of users regarding privacy. We will see in the coming months, therefore, if this attention and these concerns were justified or if, rather, there was not a misunderstanding of the real intentions of WhatsApp.

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