Commentary

UK Watchdog: Facebook To Suspend Use Of WhatsApp Data For Ad Targeting

Faced with pushback by regulators in the United Kingdom, Facebook reportedly will stop drawing on WhatsApp data about UK-based users for ad purposes.

"I don’t think users have been given enough information about what Facebook plans to do with their information, and I don’t think WhatsApp has got valid consent from users to share the information," Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham stated today in a blog post. "It’s important that we have control over our personal information, even if services don’t charge us a fee."

Denham added that her office has asked Facebook and WhatsApp to give people more information about how their data will be used, and also give them "ongoing control" over the data. She said that Facebook does't agree with her office's position, but will nonetheless temporarily stop drawing on data about UK WhatsApp users for ads or product improvements.

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"We think consumers deserve a greater level of information and protection, but so far Facebook and WhatsApp haven’t agreed," she wrote. "If Facebook starts using the data without valid consent, it may face enforcement action from my office."

The move comes about two months after the messaging service WhatsApp announced that it planned to share data about users, including their phone numbers, with Facebook. The social networking service draws on that information to make friend suggestions to WhatsApp users and to send them ads.

WhatsApp said in August it would allow users to opt out of receiving targeted ads (and receiving friend suggestions) based on phone numbers. But the company doesn't allow people to opt out of sharing their phone numbers with Facebook for other purposes.

WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014. Before the merger, WhatsApp was famous for its stringent privacy practices, including a promise that it would never share users' personally identifiable information for ad purposes.

The company's about-face on data sharing spurred criticism in the U.S., where The Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. The organizations specifically asked the FTC to prohibit WhatsApp from following through on its plan to share users' phone numbers with Facebook. The FTC said in September that it's reviewing the advocates' complaint, but the agency hasn't yet publicly taken any action.

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