Facebook Slammed In EU For 'Take It Or Leave It' Approach To Privacy Changes

Facebook has not yet addressed concerns over its decision to mesh data with messaging service WhatsApp, European privacy regulators said this week.

Last year, WhatsApp announced plans to share users' phone numbers and other information with Facebook. Facebook, which acquired WhatsApp in 2014, said it would draw on those numbers to make friend suggestions to WhatsApp users, and also send them ads, based on Facebook data. The company also will use phone numbers for other purposes, including analytics and fighting spam.

WhatsApp promised to let people opt out of receiving targeted ads (and receiving friend suggestions) based on phone numbers. But the company refused to allow people to avoid having their phone numbers shared with Facebook.

European regulators raised objections to Facebook's plan when it was first announced. This week, European regulators in the Article 29 Working Party said in a letter to WhatsApp's CEO that the company has yet to resolve those objections. 

The letter noted that WhatsApp attempted to gain users' consent to share their information with Facebook, but faulted the company's methods. One problem flagged in the letter was that WhatsApp told users that they couldn't continue to use the service unless they agreed to share their data. The EU group said it disapproved of that "take it or leave it" tactic.

"Consent could not be freely given by WhatsApp users in the absence of sufficiently granular user controls allowing for an appropriate level of control over the sharing of the data," Isabelle Falque-Pierrotin, Chairwoman of the privacy group, wrote.

"The processing of personal data by WhatsApp and the Facebook family of companies affects millions of EU citizens every day," the letter states. "The WP29 calls upon WhatsApp and Facebook to act fairly and transparently towards data subjects, to comply with EU data protection law and to cooperate fully with European data protection authorities."

Prior to merging with Facebook, WhatsApp was famous for its stringent privacy policies, including a promise to never share users' personally identifiable information for ad purposes.

Earlier this year, the European Commission fined Facebook $122 million for misleading officials about its ability to automatically combine data about its users with those of the messaging service WhatsApp.

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