Privacy Advocates Want To Halt Facebook Acquisition of WhatsApp

The Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission seeking to halt Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp.

The appeal of WhatsApp, the cross-platform mobile messaging app recently acquired by Facebook for a stunning $19 billion price tag, was that it kept to its promise of not collecting user information that would be converted to ad revenue.

The acquisition by Facebook, however, likely changes that dynamic, and that worries consumer privacy advocates. Two such groups filed a complaint this week with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission requesting an investigation and possibly an injunction temporarily blocking the acquisition.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) filed the complaint recently, stepping up on behalf of WhatsApp’s hundreds of millions of active users. The complaint said Facebook has made it clear it will incorporate WhatsApp user data into its business model, and that’s something users didn’t sign up for.

“The proposed acquisition will therefore violate WhatsApp users’ understanding of their exposure to online advertising and constitutes an unfair and deceptive trade practice,” the complaint said.

Reportedly, 50 billion messages are shared daily between WhatsApp users worldwide. WhatsApp said it collects only mobile phone numbers from its users and any other association of personal information with that number happens on the device and is not stored by WhatsApp, its privacy policy states. The service doesn’t store or copy message content either, it said.

The concern is that Facebook will be able to construct complete profiles on WhatsApp users, most of whom are likely already among Facebook’s 1.2 billion subscribers. WhatsApp users who regard the privacy promises made by the app could not be subject to intrusive targeted advertising which is the heart of Facebook’s revenue model. Facebook, meanwhile, has established precedent with past acquisitions, including Instagram in 2012, where it changes existing privacy policies and terms of service to indeed collect user data.

In backing up its claims of deceptive trade practices, EPIC and the CDD point out that WhatsApp users expect a “privacy-protective messaging service” and could not have anticipated their data would be subject to Facebook’s data collection and mining practices, the complaint said.

EPIC formally asked the FTC to investigate the acquisition on these grounds, in particular concerning Facebook’s ability and intent to access WhatsApp users’ mobile phone numbers and metadata. It also asked that until the investigation is completed that the acquisition be halted.

“In the event that the acquisition proceeds, order Facebook to insulate WhatsApp users’ information from access by Facebook’s data collection practices,” the complaint said.

According to Reuters, Facebook said in a statement that WhatsApp will operate as a separate company and will honor its privacy and security commitments.

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