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Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

What's up with WhatsApp’s new terms of service

The world’s largest instant messaging application, WhatsApp, has found itself embroiled in a controversy yet again, thanks to a change in its terms of service. What exactly is the issue and why are users worried? Mint takes a deep dive.

The world’s largest instant messaging application, WhatsApp, has found itself embroiled in a controversy yet again, thanks to a change in its terms of service. What exactly is the issue and why are users worried? Mint takes a deep dive.

What has WhatsApp done to receive flak?

The messaging app updated its terms of service and informed users that information from interactions with businesses will henceforth be shared with Facebook and the businesses themselves. However, the fact that WhatsApp shares data with Facebook, and its other products, is no secret. Ad targeting is one of the many things the shared data can be used for. The new ToS says WhatsApp may use the information to “operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support and market" its services and offerings to users. WhatsApp has reiterated that personal conversations do not figure in this.

Can WhatsApp or FB read your messages?

No. WhatsApp chats are still end-to-end encrypted. As long as that remains the case, the company or its parent cannot read the user’s messages. However, this doesn’t change the fact that these firms’ algorithms can gauge a user’s social structure, which is at the core of Facebook’s business model. Companies like Facebook, Google, Jio and others try to track users’ activities across the internet to better understand their behaviour and target them with product promotions. When Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014, data sharing among the platforms was expected to be minimal and based on user “opt in".

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What are some of the best alternatives to the app?

Telegram and Signal have come out on top as alternatives, as they are promoted as privacy-first services. The primary difference in their treatment of user data, compared to WhatsApp is that they do not plug into your social graph as deeply as WhatsApp. Signal is designed to make sure that its holding company cannot figure out social structures from group chats, etc.

Why are users angry with the ToS change?

When you interact with a business—online or offline—you abide by its rules. Every app you download asks you to agree to its ToS, and WhatsApp has done the same. But the prompts that WhatsApp sent out announcing the change, asked users to agree or discontinue using the platform in due course. Since India has the largest number of users, it might have been a better if the platform allowed users control over their business transaction data—as and when features are launched—and explain changes in user-friendly language, say experts.

Why is an e-commerce feature  being  unveiled?

Facebook invested $5.7 billion in Jio Platforms last year and social commerce via Jio Mart is likely to be a key element of this deal. Since WhatsApp is among India’s most-used apps, it is seen as a natural conduit for commerce. Despite its huge popularity, monetizing WhatsApp’s clout has been hard for Facebook. The company received a go-ahead to launch a payments services only recently after years of effort. Post-covid, online shopping has received a big boost in India and WhatsApp-Jio commerce push is likely to capitalize on this shift.

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