Facebook Pauses Use of WhatsApp Data Amid U.K. Privacy Probe

  • U.K. regulator vows to keep pushing to get more user control
  • Data use without valid consent may face ‘enforcement action’

Facebook Inc. agreed to suspend its planned use of data from U.K. users of its WhatsApp messaging service for advertising purposes, the nation’s privacy watchdog said as it vowed to “keep pushing” so people get more control.

“We’ve set out the law clearly to Facebook, and we’re pleased that they’ve agreed to pause using data from U.K. WhatsApp users for advertisements or product improvement purposes,” U.K. Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a blog post Monday. “We have now asked Facebook and WhatsApp to sign an undertaking committing to better explaining to customers how their data will be used.”

WhatsApp’s changes are the first steps by Facebook toward monetizing the platform since the social network’s chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, sealed a deal to buy the app for $22 billion for the app in 2014.

European Union data protection regulators, who include the U.K. commissioner, last month said Facebook must stop processing user data from WhatsApp while they investigate the privacy policy changes the company announced in August. The Article 29 Working Party said on Oct. 28 that it had “serious concerns” about the sharing of WhatsApp users’ data for purposes that were not included in the terms of service and privacy policy when existing users signed up to the service.

Facebook said in an e-mailed statement that the policy updates “comply” with the law and follow the latest guidance from the U.K. regulator.

“WhatsApp designed its privacy policy and terms update to give users a clear and simple explanation of how the service works, as well as choice over how their data is used,” Facebook said. “We hope to continue our detailed conversations with the ICO and other data protection officials, and we remain open to working collaboratively to address their questions.”

The U.K.’s Denham said “consumers deserve a greater level of information and protection, but so far Facebook and WhatsApp haven’t agreed.”

“If Facebook starts using the data without valid consent, they may face enforcement action from my office,” she said in the blog post.

The move, announced Aug. 25, has also raised concerns with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which is reviewing a joint complaint from two consumer privacy groups filed in August claiming that Facebook’s move violates U.S. federal law banning unfair and deceptive practices.

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