Italy’s privacy regulator on Friday formally opened up a probe into the policies of digital messaging app WhatsApp, a day after the entity called on the European Commission to look into WhatsApp’s new terms and conditions initially set to enter into force next month.
WhatsApp, a subsidiary of the social media giant Facebook, is the world’s largest digital messaging platform, with more than 2 billion monthly users as of October 2020, according to the data firm Statista. The company announced this month that a new set of terms and conditions would enter into force starting Feb. 8. On Friday, the company announced it would delay the planned update until at least May 15. Assuming the update does go into effect, users will be required to agree to the terms in order to continue using the service after that date. The new terms and conditions are designed to make it easier for parent company Facebook to use WhatsApp and other subsidiaries including photo posting site Instagram as payment services, according to analysts quoted in Italian media stories.
In the European Union (EU), which passed a data protection law in 2018, the changes to terms and conditions will be minimal: WhatsApp will have greater access to email addresses and limited information on the phone where the app is installed, but it will not be able to use that information for targeted advertising, according to privacy attorney Ernesto Belisario, who was quoted in Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s most circulated newspapers. But outside the EU, that information can be used for marketing purposes. There are no jurisdictions where Facebook or WhatsApp have access to the content of private messages or phone calls, according to the Frequently Asked Questions section on the companies’ websites.
On Thursday, Italy’s privacy regulator informed the European Commission of its concerns about the new terms and conditions, and it said it retained the right to take unilateral action in connection with the company’s new rules. On Friday, the regulator opened a probe into the company’s policies. Once completed, the privacy investigation could require WhatsApp to edit its terms and conditions for users in Italy. The latest developments sparked widespread news coverage in Italy, with Corriere della Sera running a major story explaining what will change once the new terms enter into force. The financial daily said Italians were “lucky” to be protected by strong privacy laws but said they needed to be updated as technology developed. The technology site Open, meanwhile, explained the pros and cons of various other messaging applications.
Several media reports said the new rules could help boost the popularity of alternative messaging services. Corriere della Sera reported that Signal, one such service, was downloaded 1.3 million times in one day this week worldwide, while Telegram, another rival, saw 25 million downloads in a three-day span. International media reports said worries that WhatsApp could see its user base erode were the main factor behind the company’s decision to delay the change in its terms and conditions.
According to the data from Statista, Facebook Messenger, another Facebook product, is the world’s second-leading messaging platform, with 1.3 billion monthly users as of three months ago. China’s WeChat is the third, with more than 1.2 billion monthly users, followed by Tencent QQ, another Chinese company, with nearly 650 million users. Social media site Snapchat was next, with more than 430 million monthly users, just ahead of Telegram, with 400 million monthly users. There were six more companies with between 100 million and 250 million monthly users.