WhatsApp U-turns on limiting app functions for users who don’t accept privacy policy changes

Users who are still uncomfortable with the privacy changes may decide to delete their WhatsApp account and those who need help with this can contact WhatsApp. — Reuters

SINGAPORE: After delaying its privacy policy changes by three months due to an uproar from users, WhatsApp has done an about-turn and said it will not restrict functionality or ban people from using its app if they do not accept the changes.

The changes are related to users messaging a business on WhatsApp, which is optional, and also allow some WhatsApp data to be shared with parent company Facebook.

Users who did not accept the changes would no longer have been able to continue to use the messaging service.

First announced in early January and scheduled to kick in on Feb 8, the impending policy changes saw WhatsApp users flocking in droves to rival apps that touted better privacy.

The implementation was then pushed back to mid-May, but the messaging giant changed its stance earlier last month.

It said it would not impose an outright ban on users who did not accept the policy changes, but instead send them persistent reminders and limit what they could use WhatsApp for, such as not being able to access their chat list.

It changed its stance yet again recently, saying no one will have his or her account “deleted or lose functionality of WhatsApp on May 15 because of this update”.

The latest update on its website stated that “the majority of users who have seen the (policy changes) have accepted” them.

The app will continue to show a notification about the changes and remind those who have not done so to review and accept them.

“We currently have no plans for these reminders to become persistent and to limit the functionality of the app,” WhatsApp added.

The decision was made following “recent discussions with various authorities and privacy experts”, technology news site TheNextWeb quoted WhatsApp as saying last week.

Some governments have expressed concern over the privacy changes. For instance, India’s technology ministry asked the messaging service to withdraw them in a May 18 letter, Reuters reported.

WhatsApp has more than two billion users globally.

In January, many users jumped to rival chat apps such as Telegram and Signal, which are said to offer better privacy features.

According to the Apple App Store, these two apps appear to collect less data than WhatsApp.

Singapore data from research firm Apptopia showed that for the seven-day period from Jan 6 to 12 this year, which is around the time the WhatsApp controversy blew up, the average daily downloads for WhatsApp here on the Apple App Store and Google Play was about 4,490, lower than the 5,640 a year ago.

For Telegram, the figure was about 4,970 for the same period this year, higher than the 3,390 last year.

As for Signal, it was downloaded an average of about 3,560 times daily over the seven-day period this year, a big jump from about 80 a year ago.

Apptopia’s Singapore data also showed that from 2015 until early January this year, there were about 12.3 million downloads of WhatsApp, 4.2 million downloads of Telegram and 159,000 downloads of Signal from the Apple App Store and Google Play.

In January, WhatsApp put out assurances that it still respected users' privacy.

WhatsApp said that neither it nor Facebook can read users' chats or hear their calls, because they are encrypted. This also applies to chats consumers have with companies that use WhatsApp Business.

Some companies can choose to securely store the messages on Facebook’s servers to help them manage the chats.

WhatsApp added that Facebook will not automatically use consumers’ chats with merchants to determine the advertisements these people see.

But a company can use its WhatsApp Business data for its own marketing purposes, such as ads on Facebook. Even then, Facebook cannot target general ads in a similar way at these users, WhatsApp said.

In its latest website update, WhatsApp said that there will be “other opportunities for those who haven’t accepted the (policy changes) to do so directly in the app”.

These include instances when someone re-registers for WhatsApp or if someone wants to use a feature that is related to the policy changes for the first time.

Users who are still uncomfortable with the privacy changes may decide to delete their WhatsApp account and those who need help with this can contact WhatsApp.

“If you’d like to delete your account... we hope you reconsider,” said the messaging service. “Deleting your account is something we can’t reverse as it erases your message history, removes you from all of your WhatsApp groups, and deletes your WhatsApp backups.” – The Straits Times (Singapore)/Asia News Network

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