Request to update WhatsApp's privacy policy on the smartphone screen in Brazil
Request to update WhatsApp's privacy policy on the smartphone screen in Brazil, the second largest app market in the world. Photo: Rodrigo Ghedin

A small victory against a Big Tech

Pressured by users, NGOs, and governments, WhatsApp gives up forcing users to agree to its new privacy policy

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As a general rule, when a Big Tech decides to mess with the rules or structure of its services and products, all that’s left is to accept and adapt or drop out. That’s how it happened to the not-so-transparent logic of algorithmic timelines of social networks, with the countless reformulations of interfaces, and with new terms of use that few people bother to read before clicking “agree.” Nevertheless, something seems to have changed when WhatsApp tried to change its privacy policy in early 2021. To the surprise of even the most upbeat critics, the company has lost this battle to users and authorities.

Quietly, on May 24, WhatsApp sent a statement to The Next Web saying that “we currently have no plans to limit the functionality of how WhatsApp works for those who have not yet accepted the update,” in reference to the new privacy policy.

READ ALSO: Facebook relaunches WhatsApp money transfers in Brazil

It was a surprising change of course. A few days earlier, WhatsApp was “threatening” users, saying that the rejection of its new privacy policy (introduced in January this year and expected to take effect on May 15) would result in the gradual loss of resources until the total inoperability of the application (in addition to the side effect of popups in full screen asking, insistently, to accept the changes).

Well, not anymore. WhatsApp will continue to display the popup with the same frequency (on my phone, it appears about once a day). Still, now it says that “[…] users who have not accepted the update will have the opportunity to do so directly in the app when registering again with WhatsApp or using a feature related to this update for the first time”. When you change your cell phone, you will have to give in to continue using WhatsApp.

READ ALSO: Colombia orders WhatsApp to take measures to protect users’ personal data

Despite this, WhatsApp’s stance change can be considered a victory for users against the Big Tech. A victory built by many: people like you and me, NGOs that defend privacy, and countries where WhatsApp is the most popular digital means of communication.

On the one hand, the announcement of WhatsApp’s new privacy policy in January caused many users to replace the app with its main rivals, Telegram and Signal. The loss of users, the most valuable asset of companies like Facebook, always sets off an alarm, and the bleeding at the beginning of the year was big enough to make itself felt. According to Sensor Tower, Telegram downloads jumped 283% in January, to 63.5 million, and Signal downloads, 5.001%, to 50.6 million.

On the other hand, governments around the world pressured WhatsApp and demanded explanations. In Latin America, Brazil and Argentina managed to get WhatsApp deadline extensions for those users who did not accept the new terms until May 15th.

In fact, it was ironic to see WhatsApp/Facebook fall victim to misinformation. Even today, six months later, it is heard that the company’s new privacy policy would allow sharing data with Facebook. Actually, this has been happening since 2016.

In addition to disrupting the debate, the misunderstanding reveals the widespread ignorance about the tools we use on a daily basis and explains why common and questionable practices of companies like Facebook are executed with stealthiness, buried in the legality of adhesion contracts, and presented superficially. They look as bad as they are when put under the spotlight.

READ ALSO: Telegram launches function to import WhatsApp chat history

Not that the proposed changes—the real ones—are not bad. As explained by LABS before, they open a loophole in the hitherto mandatory end-to-end encryption. When the user chats with a company that outsources the management of their WhatsApp communications, such conversations may be seen and processed by those third parties.

There are other battles underway against Big Techs on the product and service front, such as Google’s proposal to replace third-party cookies in Chrome with “FLoC” technology, and, in the US, Amazon’s Sidewalk project, which will transform the brand’s products, such as the Echo speakers, on public Wi-Fi repeaters by default. The fight goes on, my friends.

Translated by Fabiane Ziolla Menezes