EU consumer watchdog lodges complaint against WhatsApp

12 Jul 2021

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The BEUC says the Facebook-owned messaging service has been ‘deliberately vague’ about its new terms of service.

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and eight of its member groups have submitted a formal complaint against WhatsApp to the EU Commission and the European network of consumer authorities.

The complaint concerns the messaging app’s new terms of service which were rolled out in May. Users received repeated messages and had their use of the app limited until they accepted the new terms.

The complaint concerns WhatsApp “pushing users” to accept the updated policy, and the “opacity of the new terms”. The BEUC says the service has “failed to explain in plain and intelligible language the nature of the changes”.

According to the complaint, the persistence and ambiguity of the policy themselves constitute breaches of EU consumer law, regardless of the effects of the policy.

Announcing the submission of the complaint, the BEUC’s director general Monique Goyens said: “WhatsApp has been bombarding users for months with aggressive and persistent pop-up messages to force them to accept its new terms of use and privacy policy. They’ve been telling users that their access to their app will be cut off if they do not accept the new terms.

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“Yet consumers don’t know what they’re actually accepting. WhatsApp has been deliberately vague about this and consumers would be exposed to far-reaching data processing without valid consent. That’s why we’re calling on the authorities to take swift action against WhatsApp to ensure that it respects consumer rights.”

In January, WhatsApp said the new terms would not expand the amount of data it shares with Facebook, which acquired the service in 2014 for more than $19bn.

At the time, Niamh Sweeney, WhatsApp’s EMEA director of policy, said: “There are no changes to WhatsApp’s data-sharing practices in Europe arising from this update. It remains the case that WhatsApp does not share European region WhatsApp user data with Facebook for the purpose of Facebook using this data to improve its products or ads.”

The new complaint also acknowledges that the WhatsApp update is being investigated by the European Data Protection Board, following a case taken by the data protection commissioner in Hamburg, Germany in May. The BEUC is calling upon consumer authorities to investigate the company separately, but also to cooperate with ongoing data protection proceedings.

Roll-out of the messaging service’s new privacy policy has been put on hold in India, pending the enactment of a new data protection law and the outcome of several legal probes at state and federal levels.

WhatsApp has yet to publicly comment on the BEUC complaint.

Jack Kennedy is a freelance journalist based in Dublin

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