As you may recall, back in January, WhatsApp notified users of a coming change in its data sharing policy which would see some info on people’s interactions with businesses in WhatsApp shared with parent company Facebook, in order to provide more functionality for business users.
The prompts sparked a major backlash against the app, with many users misinterpreting the change to mean that all of their WhatsApp info, including the content of their private message threads, would be shared with Zuck and Co. direct.
Which is not now, and never was the case – but that specific detail got lost in the shuffle, as millions took to downloading alternative messaging apps like Signal and Telegram in an effort to avoid the change. That pushed both of those apps to the top of the download charts, and forced Facebook to launch an all-out PR blitz to better explain the update, which included full-page newspaper ads explaining the update in India’s major dailies.
Finally, however, Facebook announced that it would delay the change and re-think its process, in an effort to placate its increasingly disgruntled user base.
At that time, Facebook said that it would do “a lot more to clear up the misinformation” around how privacy and security works in the app, which it hoped would clarify the detail of the update, and eventually, enable it to move ahead. Facebook needs to update its policy in order to maximize its revenue opportunities through WhatsApp, with the change paving the way for more in-app shopping and eCommerce transactions in the messaging app, while also providing more capacity for brands to set up business profiles on the platform.
Over the last few weeks, WhatsApp users have been gradually seeing the privacy update alert prompts once again, outlining the pending update – and while WhatsApp has softened the language in its new explanations, the basic premise is still the same. Users need to agree to share some data with Facebook – which entirely relates to business interactions in WhatsApp – or they’ll, eventually, be unable to use the messaging app.
In terms of data sharing, it’s not a highly controversial, nor intrusive update. But still, it’s enough to raise the hackles of many users.
India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), in response to the concerns of Indian citizens, has now demanded that Facebook abandon the planned update, or face restrictions in the nation.
As reported by The Next Web:
“MEITY has given WhatsApp seven days to respond to this notice with a deadline of 25 May. It added that if the response from the Facebook-owned company is not satisfactory, the government can take lawful actions against the social networking giant.”
The request is not a huge surprise, given that the Indian Government made the same demand back in January, in response to Facebook’s original announcement. But it will be a big concern for The Social Network.
India is WhatsApp’s biggest user market, with more than 459 million active local users, and a key motivation for this new change is to facilitate WhatsApp’s growing business offerings in the region. If Facebook can transform WhatsApp into the key app for a wide range of functions among Indian users, including eCommerce and other business transactions, that will position the company for huge growth in the rapidly expanding Indian tech sector, and facilitate direct monetization of WhatsApp for the first time.
Which Facebook has been pushing for since acquiring the platform back in 2014. Direct ads in message threads, Facebook’s found, don’t work, while other options like ads in WhatsApp Status, the app’s own Stories-like offering, have also been abandoned.
So it needs this shift to monetize – and with the Indian Government pushing back, and calling for Facebook to abandon the change entirely, that will cause big headaches within Facebook HQ, as it looks to find a solution to address MEITY’s concerns.
German officials have also opposed the update – and even banned the update entirely at one stage, due to concerns over what the change may mean for user privacy.
As noted, now German regulators are seeking an EU-wide ban via the European Data Protection Board, which could mean that the change has to be dropped in Europe either way, which would further dent Facebook’s planned evolution as a result of the change.
And this is all aside from the individual users who are downloading alternative messaging apps, once again, in response to concerns. Again, Facebook has repeatedly reiterated that the change does not relate to information shared in private message threads, and does not compromise WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption.
But when you build an app focused on privacy, and encourage users to share whatever they like, with no threat of outside access, as Facebook is now learning, people take that commitment seriously. And it could end up stalling the project altogether.
Which would be a massive blow to Facebook’s growth plans, and its effort to transform WhatsApp into the essential app in various regions. I mean, it already is for many users, but in order for Facebook to make any money out of that, it needs to integrate these new business tools, and it needs to update its policy to facilitate such in the most direct and responsive way.
There are other ways around this, but they’ll take a lot more effort, and a lot more development on Facebook’s end. And with the company also planning the full integration of its messaging apps, it’s going to have to update its policies even further at some stage, so it has to clarify a way forward, one way or another.
But the outlook remains cloudy for the update, and Facebook will have some negotiating on its hands to get it through.
It’s definitely not a done deal yet, and it’ll be interesting to see how Facebook looks to progress to the next stage of the plan.