Privacy Groups Ask Feds to Investigate Facebook’s WhatsApp Buy

National Journal
Dustin Volz
March 6, 2014, 11:11 a.m.

Face­book’s $19 bil­lion ac­quis­i­tion of What­s­App might come with some red tape after all.

The Elec­tron­ic and Pri­vacy In­form­a­tion Cen­ter and the Cen­ter for Di­git­al Demo­cracy filed a com­plaint with the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion on Thursday ob­ject­ing to the so­cial net­work’s pro­posed pur­chase on grounds that it could vi­ol­ate the pri­vacy pro­tec­tions users of the pop­u­lar mes­saging plat­form pre­vi­ously as­sumed they pos­sessed.

“What­s­App users could not reas­on­ably have an­ti­cip­ated that by se­lect­ing a pro-pri­vacy mes­saging ser­vice, they would sub­ject their data to Face­book’s data-col­lec­tion prac­tices,” the com­plaint reads. “The pro­posed ac­quis­i­tion will there­fore vi­ol­ate What­s­App users’ un­der­stand­ing of their ex­pos­ure to on­line ad­vert­ising and con­sti­tutes an un­fair and de­cept­ive trade prac­tice.”

What­s­App users have been prom­ised that the com­pany would “not re­tain or re­pur­pose in­form­a­tion col­lec­ted from their mo­bile phones,” ac­cord­ing to the brief, a guar­an­tee that doesn’t square with Face­book’s mod­us op­erandi of col­lect­ing user data for ad­vert­isers. Un­der that as­sump­tion, What­s­App users may have shared more per­son­al in­form­a­tion that they would prefer Face­book have ac­cess to, the com­plaint charges.

The com­plaint ad­di­tion­ally calls on the FTC to halt Face­book’s ac­quis­i­tion un­til a prop­er re­view of the pri­vacy is­sues are car­ried out, and to in­su­late What­s­App user data from Big Blue’s data-col­lec­tion prac­tices.

“We don’t know or have any way of know­ing what Face­book and What­s­App have agreed to do with user data oth­er than what they have rep­res­en­ted pub­licly,” said Ju­lia Hor­witz, a staff at­tor­ney with EPIC.

Pri­or to the deal, What­s­App res­ol­utely re­fused to run ads on its ser­vice, a perk that fol­low­ers say helped give rise to its enorm­ous pop­ular­ity. Some fans of the plat­form have ex­pressed dis­may that their data will be shared for the use of tar­geted ad­vert­ising.

“Face­book’s goal is to bring more con­nectiv­ity and util­ity to the world by de­liv­er­ing core In­ter­net ser­vices ef­fi­ciently and af­ford­ably — this part­ner­ship will help make that hap­pen,” the com­pany said in a state­ment. “As we have said re­peatedly, What­s­App will op­er­ate as a sep­ar­ate com­pany and will hon­or its com­mit­ments to pri­vacy and se­cur­ity.”

The Menlo Park, Cal­if.-based com­pany an­nounced it had pur­chased the five-year-old What­s­App, which boasts 450 mil­lion users and a soar­ing growth rate of a mil­lion more each day, last month for a hu­mong­ous price tag of $19 bil­lion that shocked most ob­serv­ers, some of whom were un­fa­mil­i­ar with a mes­saging ser­vice that is far more pop­u­lar over­seas than it is in the United States.

Rival com­pan­ies, in­clud­ing Google and Mi­crosoft, have sug­ges­ted that Face­book grossly over­val­ued the mo­bile app.

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