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More transparency for WhatsApp on terms of service

07 Mar 2023 / data law Print

More transparency on WhatsApp service terms

WhatsApp has committed to being more transparent on changes to its terms of service, following a dialogue with EU consumer-protection authorities and the European Commission (CPC network).

The messaging app will also make it easier for users to reject updates when they disagree with them, and will clearly explain when such rejection leads the user to no longer be able to use WhatsApp's services.

WhatsApp has also confirmed that users' personal data is not shared with third parties or other Meta companies – including Facebook – for advertising purposes.

The dialogue was coordinated by Ireland’s Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) and the Swedish Consumer Agency and facilitated by the European Commission.

Changes will comply with EU rules

Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders said: “I welcome WhatsApp's commitments to changing its practices to comply with EU rules, actively informing users of any changes to their contract, and respecting their choices instead of asking them each time they open the app.

“Consumers have a right to understand what they agree to and what that choice entails concretely, so that they can decide whether they want to continue using the platform,” Commissioner Reynders said.  

The CPC Network first sent a letter to WhatsApp in January 2022, following an alert by the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and eight of its member associations on alleged unfair practices in the context of WhatsApp’s updates to their terms of service and privacy policy.

In June 2022, the CPC Network sent a second letter to WhatsApp reiterating their request that consumers must be clearly informed about the business model and, in particular, whether WhatsApp derives revenues from commercial policies relating to users’ personal data.

The company confirmed that it does not share users’ personal data for advertising purposes.

Future policy updates from WhatsApp

For any future policy updates, WhatsApp will:

  • Explain what changes it intends to make to the users' contracts and how they could affect users’ rights,
  • Include the possibility of rejecting updated terms of service as prominently as the offer to accept them,
  • Ensure that the notifications informing users about the updates can be dismissed or review of updates can be delayed, as well as respecting users' choices and refraining from sending recurring notifications.

The Consumer Protection Cooperation Network (CPC) will now actively monitor how WhatsApp implements these commitments when making any future updates to its policies and, where necessary, enforce compliance – including by imposing fines.

‘Dark patterns’

A recent Commission study, in collaboration with the CPC, showed that many companies use ‘dark patterns’ to make it more difficult to unsubscribe from a service than to subscribe to it.

The CPC Network, with the support of the Commission, will continue to intensify their efforts to address such illegal practices where they occur.

The new Digital Services Act (DSA) obliges services to have clear terms and conditions, and comprehensible language, when their content or their account can be affected by certain restrictions.

It also introduces an obligation to apply such restrictions in a diligent, objective and proportionate manner.

The DSA will complement rules, such as those under the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive and the General Data Protection Regulation, so that no regulatory gap is left for platforms to manipulate users. 

Making informed decisions

Kevin O’Brien of the CCPC said: “It’s crucial that consumers have clear information presented in a consumer-friendly manner so that they can understand and make informed decisions about changes to the terms and conditions of a service they are receiving. 

“As social-media platforms constantly evolve, they must act within the law,” he added.

“Platforms such as WhatsApp are required to be fair and transparent in how they communicate with their users. This work, led by the CCPC and our Swedish counterparts will ensure fairer treatment of WhatsApp users in Ireland and across the European Union.”

This is the second recent cross-European consumer-protection action jointly led by the CCPC. In 2022, the body jointly led a CPC dialogue with TikTok, obtaining commitments to ensure that children were not subjected to hidden marketing or aggressive advertising techniques.

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