House Energy and Commerce Committee Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee member Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) led a group of nine Congressional Hispanic Caucus members sending a letter on Tuesday to Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to revert Facebook’s decision to require WhatsApp users to accept the increased data collection or leave the platform.
“We write to respectfully ask Facebook to consider reversing WhatsApp’s decision to update their new terms of service. We believe Facebook is potentially offering a false choice to users across the globe: accept the sharing of metadata with Facebook by May 15th or leave the platform altogether,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter. The Congress members called the change a potential misuse of data.
The lawmakers emphasized Facebook’s pledge during its $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014, that “[w]e are absolutely not going to change plans around WhatsApp and the way it uses user data. WhatsApp is going to operate completely autonomously.” Reportedly, this was a condition the Federal Trade Commission cited in its approval of its acquisition. However, this promise was allegedly broken via a 2016 update and again with this most recent update.
In particular, the Congress members wrote, “In 2016, we believe WhatsApp broke its promise. Presenting a routine ‘update’ on WhatsApp’s terms and conditions, Facebook was given access to a range of user data with only 30 days’ notice to opt out. This policy update allowed Facebook to collect metadata from WhatsApp users, stating it may use the information to make ‘product suggestions’ and show ‘relevant offers and ads,’ an action we view as potentially harmful to an individual’s data rights. With this latest update, WhatsApp is introducing new features for messaging between businesses and their customers on WhatsApp. WhatsApp has stated that though personal chats will remain private, the same cannot be said of chats conducted between businesses and individuals. Users would ‘opt in’ to a chat-like interaction with businesses. A driver behind these interactions would be the data that Facebook has collected on users through Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.” Therefore, according to the lawmakers, businesses can advertise on Facebook based on these interactions and users may not have full functionality until they accept these terms.
The press release noted that the group of lawmakers “represent substantial Spanish-speaking and immigrant communities, which also make up the strongest American-based user base on WhatsApp at approximately 32 million people.” The lawmakers expressed their concerns about the impact this update will have, particularly because of the lack of possible competitors if a user decided to leave WhatsApp to not have their data collected. The lawmakers pointed to the potential effect it could have on U.S.-based Hispanics trying to reach family and friends in Latin America, where “WhatsApp usage is over 85 percent in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, and Mexico.” The Congress members noted that mobile prices in Latin America are high, making traditional texting unaffordable in comparison to WhatsApp. However, the lawmakers added that “As Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, we are concerned that WhatsApp’s policy change may leave our immigrant communities vulnerable to further ad targeting. We believe consumers deserve the option to use WhatsApp knowing that their privacy will be protected the way the founders intended, and the way Facebook promised to uphold.”