FTC Tells Facebook to Preserve WhatsApp Privacy Pledge

Changes would be considered a deceptive practice

The Federal Trade Commission warned Facebook that it must stick to its word about maintaining WhatsApp's privacy policies. If it goes back on the public statements both parties made when the $19 billion deal was announced in February, the FTC will come down hard, the agency said today.

Facebook has been slapped around for unilaterally changing its privacy policies for its social network as well as the companies it has purchased. The company is currently under a 20-year consent decree with the FTC for its privacy policies.

In a letter to Facebook's chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, and WhatsApp general counsel Anne Hoge, Jessica Rich, the director of the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, said that failing to honor those promises would violate the FTC's unfair and deceptive practices authority.

"The statements in WhatsApp's privacy policy, combined with the recent public statements by both Facebook and WhatsApp, constitute clear promises to consumers about the collection and use of their data by WhatsApp and, following WhatsApp's purchase, Facebook," wrote Rich.

This doesn’t mean Facebook can't ever change WhatApp's data collection and use privacy, but if it does, it must comply with the FTC's consent order with Facebook that it first obtain consumers' affirmative consent. 

Unlike Facebook, WhatsApp promises its users that it "does not collect names, emails, addresses or other contact information from its users' mobile address book or contact lists" other than mobile phone numbers.

Fearing that WhatsApp's strict privacy policy will disappear and that Facebook would eventually move to incorporate data from WhatsApp for advertising purposes, a group of privacy organizations last month called on the FTC to investigate and halt the deal. The deal also made a lot of WhatsApp users very nervous that the privacy policy might change. 

"Facebook did not spend $19 billion without planning to reap huge financial rewards by turning WhatsApp into an effective monetization machine," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, one of the privacy groups that asked the FTC to investigate the deal. "The FTC is to be commended for sending a very strong signal that they will hold Facebook and WhatsApp accountable for their promises. The commission's action has likely spoiled, for now, the plans Facebook has developed to turn its $19 billion into even more digital gold for themselves."

Though it doesn't appear the FTC has any intention of blocking the acquisition, it has put Facebook and WhatsApp on notice.

"Hundreds of millions of users have entrusted their personal information to WhatsApp. The FTC staff will continue to monitor the companies' practices to ensure that Facebook and WhatsApp honor the promises they have made to those users," Rich wrote.

Publish date: April 10, 2014 https://dev.adweek.com/digital/ftc-tells-facebook-preserve-whatsapp-privacy-pledge-156931/ © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT