Germany opts out of WhatsApp's controversial new privacy policy

WhatsApp for Android dark mode
WhatsApp for Android dark mode (Image credit: Harish Jonnalagadda / Android Central)

What you need to know

  • Germany has banned Facebook from processing WhatsApp user data.
  • The company's privacy policy is being criticized for being misleading.
  • Facebook's previous data protection scandals, such as Cambridge Analytica, are being raised as potential concerns, especially as Germany heads towards federal elections later this summer.

WhatsApp's new privacy policy rollout is hitting a snag in Germany. On Tuesday, a regulator issued a barring order on Facebook, banning it from accessing personal data from WhatsApp users. The move comes as a response to WhatsApp's controversial new privacy policy, set to take effect on May 15. While the company promised to not delete user accounts if they refused these new terms as it had originally threatened, the eventual slowdown of account features would encourage all but the most stubborn users to accept or switch, and it seems that's what the regulator takes issue with.

In a press release shared on Tuesday, the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information argued that Facebook had no legal basis for processing WhatsApp user data, noting that "the contents [of the new policy] are misleading and show considerable contradictions" and that "consent is not freely given, since WhatsApp demands acceptance of the new provisions as a condition for the continued use of the service's functionalities."

Johannes Caspar, Hamburg's Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, said in comments:

The order is intended to safeguard the rights and freedoms of the many millions of users who approve to the terms of use throughout Germany. The aim is to prevent disadvantages and damage associated with such a black-box procedure.The data protection scandals of recent years, from "Cambridge Analytica" to the recently disclosed data leak that affected more than 500 million Facebook users, show the extent and threats of mass profiling.This concerns fundamental rights and also the possibility of using profiling to influence voter decisions in order to manipulate democratic decision-making processes.

Facebook had drawn criticism for its new privacy policy last year, leading to a growth in rival messaging apps; Telegram and Signal. The company eventually plans to tie WhatsApp to Facebook Messenger, so an agreement like this would possibly have been necessary down the line. That being said, Facebook's mishandling of user data over the years has afforded it a healthy serving of skepticism, and the Commissioner highlights several of them, tying these concerns to the country's upcoming elections.

Naturally, Facebook disputes this characterization of events.Android Central understands the company plans to explore its options for appealing the order while cooperating with any European Data Protection Board investigation that may follow.

When reached for comment, a WhatsApp spokesperson gaveAndroid Central the following:

The Hamburg DPA's order against Facebook is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and effect of WhatsApp's update and therefore has no legitimate basis. Our recent update explains the options people have to message a business on WhatsApp and provides further transparency about how we collect and use data. As the Hamburg DPA's claims are wrong, the order will not impact the continued roll-out of the update. We remain fully committed to delivering secure and private communications for everyone.

Michael Allison