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EU advocacy group expresses concern over WhatsApp’s data-sharing policy

WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging service, is in regulatory hot water. In a letter undersigned by all 28 bloc members of the European Union’s Article 29 Working Party, the EU’s consumer protection authority expressed “serious concerns” over a new data-sharing arrangement with parent company Facebook that will see users subjected to targeted advertising. It has requested that the messaging platform temporarily halt the policy’s implementation until the advisory group completes a preliminary investigation.

At fault is a far-reaching change in WhatsApp’s terms of service. When Facebook acquired the messaging platform for $19 billion in February 2014, it promised not to collect personal data. But in August, WhatsApp informed users it would begin sharing phone numbers, photos, online statuses, profile names, and more with the social network with Facebook, information the parent company said it would use to improve the quality of display advertisements across its portfolio of mobile and web products.

The Article 29 group’s principal concern is the apparent inability of some WhatsApp users to opt out of the new policy. Account holders who have not accepted the new terms can decline to agree within the app, but those who already acquiesced have 30 days to change their minds.

The EU alleged that, in enrolling most WhatsApp users in the new policy by default, the Facebook was effectively sidestepping legal disclosure. Furthermore, it contended that WhatsApp users in Europe were not properly notified of the policy change, that they had no way to consent to it, and that the process of opting out was not transparent — practices that “created great uncertainty among users and non-users of the service,” the Article 29 group wrote.

Opting out of the policy is performed in the WhatsApp app from within the settings menu. Users who have not yet agreed to the updated policy and do not wish to do so can tap the “Read More” button on the popup that appears and untick the box labeled “Share my WhatsApp account information with Facebook.” Users who have accepted the terms can alternatively you can open the WhatsApp settings menu and toggle the “Share my account info” button.

A WhatsApp spokesperson told Engadget that it had “constructive conversations” with EU authorities, even prior to the change in policy and that it is “committed to respecting applicable law.” It declined, however, to comment on the Article 29 group’s request that it cease the collection of WhatsApp user data.

The EU is not the only advocacy group that has cried foul. In the United States, consumer privacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) registered a complaint against Facebook with the Federal Trade Commission. Regulators at Germany’s Federal Cartel Office, concerned the new policy could lead Facebook to collect data on users without a Facebook presence, ordered WhatsApp to halt the new practice. And an Italian antitrust watchdog group announced a probe into whether WhatsApp obliged users to agree to share personal data with Facebook.

More broadly speaking, WhatsApp and Facebook are far from the only U.S. tech companies that have found themselves in the EU’s crosshairs. In 2008, European regulators fined Microsoft $1.35 billion for giving its web browser, Internet Explorer, prime placement over third-party competitors. In May, the European Commission reportedly considered levying a $3.4 billion fine on Google for “abusing its dominance of internet search.”