Terms & Conditions: WhatsApp’s legalese is user-friendly … and hilarious

Terms & Conditions: WhatsApp

Nokia this week debuted the first ever phone to feature a dedicated WhatsApp button, the Asha 210. While the device likely won’t land in the U.S. anytime soon, its very existence is a sign of how popular WhatsApp, a free alternative to text messaging, has become. (The app itself costs $0.99 for iPhone users. On other mobile operating systems, the app is free to download, and free to use for the first year. Subsequent years cost $0.99. There is no additional charge for sending messages using WhatsApp.) Founded in 2009 by Yahoo veterans Brian Acton and Jan Koum, WhatsApp currently boasts around 20 billion (yes, with a “b”) message sent over its network every day – a milestone that the company recently used to claim that it’s “bigger than Twitter.”

Given the all but criminal prices wireless providers charge for text messaging plans – a service that, technically speaking, doesn’t cost providers a penny – it’s understandable that an app that lets you send messages to iPhones, Android and Windows Phone devices, BlackBerrys, and Nokia handsets for nothing would catch on. But what exactly are users giving up for such a steal? Let’s dive into WhatsApp’s terms of service and privacy policy to find out.

Terms of Service

While WhatsApp has thus far opted to not provide a summary of key provisions in its terms of service – a good practice that is becoming increasingly popular – the document itself is incredibly easy to read. It’s still long, which likely means most people won’t read it. But if you do, there’s very little that will cause you to call up your contract lawyer friend for a translation. (We all have contract lawyer friends, right?) And when it comes to content, you cannot get better than WhatsApp – it’s terms are very good for users. There are really no obvious red flags. Some of it is downright good advice. And it’s even funny. When was the last time you read a terms of service that was funny? Never, that’s when.

No terrorists allowed!

WhatsApp isn’t for everybody. Specifically, the company forbids the use of its app by anyone under the age of 16, unless you are “an emancipated minor, or possess legal parental or guardian consent.” Oh, and you can’t use the app if you are “located in a country that is subject to a U.S. Government embargo, or that has been designated by the U.S. Government as a ‘terrorist-supporting’ country.” Hear that, terrorists? No WhatsApp for you!

Don’t blame me

This is really just common sense – but worth noting, especially for you litigious parents out there: WhatsApp explains that it is not responsible for any third-party content accessed through its app. That means, if you clink on a link sent through WhatsApp, the company is not responsible for the content you access, or the privacy practices of that company.

What’s your status?

We’ll get into WhatsApp’s privacy policy soon. But the terms of service has some important privacy information, as well. WhatsApp allows users to post various optional content – “status text, profile photos, and other communications” – as well as “last seen” info, which is posted automatically and tells users when you last used WhatsApp. All of these are collectively known as “Status Submissions” and are analogous to the status messages that show below your name in most chat applications. Unlike your private messages, Status Submission content can be seen by anyone who uses WhatsApp and has their your phone number stored in her or his phone. In other words, Status Submissions are basically public.

“A good rule of thumb is if you don’t want the whole world to know something or see something, don’t submit it as a Status Submission to the Service,” says WhatsApps terms of service. Good advice.

That’s not the end of the Status Submission warnings, however. The company also clarifies that you are not allowed to post any copyrighted content as your Status Submission. But, you can post porn as your Status Submission, if you so choose. Just make sure it is “identified as such” (and it’s not infringing anyone’s copyright). 

If you violate these guidelines, WhatsApp may go in and remove your Status Submission without asking permission. And it could even delete your account.

Just shut up

Speaking of having your account deleted, WhatsApp reserves the right to terminate your account for any reason whatsoever – a provision I generally view as bad for users. However, this time, I’m going to have to give WhatsApp a bit of a break – the provision is still in there, but the company seems to acknowledge the unfairness of kicking someone out of their service arbitrarily with some wink-wink-nudge-nudge humor.

“WhatsApp reserves the right to remove content and Status Submissions without prior notice,” reads the ToS. “WhatsApp may also terminate a user’s access to the Service, if they are determined to be a repeat infringer, or for any or no reason, including being annoying.” (Emphasis mine.)

That’s right, if you’re annoying to WhatsApp’s team, get ready to not have access to WhatsApp anymore. You could take that warning at face value – but it sounds to me like they know the delete-for-any-reason provision – which exists in the vast majority of Internet companies’ terms of service covered here at T&C – is ridiculous. WhatsApp is just making that clear.

Do what you want

WhatsApp clarifies that you use the service “at your sole risk.” Anything bad that happens as a result of using the app is not WhatsApp’s fault. And you can’t sue the company or its employees because of something bad that happens as a result of WhatsApp – including messages not being delivered, or only being partially delivered. As the company writes in big bold letters: “AS WITH THE PURCHASE OF A PRODUCT OR SERVICE THROUGH ANY MEDIUM OR IN ANY ENVIRONMENT, YOU SHOULD USE YOUR BEST JUDGMENT AND EXERCISE CAUTION WHERE APPROPRIATE. AND AGAIN, USE THIS JUST FOR FUN.” (Emphasis theirs.)

This company just keeps getting more awesome, doesn’t it?

Privacy Notice

Like WhatsApp’s terms of service, its privacy policy is equally clear and easy to read. It outlines exactly the types of information it collects, and how that information is used. In short, it’s exactly what a privacy policy should be.

Can I get your number?

The main piece of personal information that you must provide WhatsApp is your phone number – the service won’t work without it. You may also have to provide a “push notification name” (username), billing information (“if applicable”), and “mobile device information” (what kind of smartphone you’re using). Further, “WhatsApp will periodically access your address book or contact list on your mobile phone to locate the mobile phone numbers of other WhatsApp users.”

Leave it out

Now, the info listed above is simply used to make the service work. WhatsApp does not collect information that it doesn’t need, such as “names, emails, addresses or other contact information from its users’ mobile address book or contact lists other than mobile phone numbers.” Even the names of your contacts remain uncollected – the pairing of names and phone numbers of your contacts happens entirely on your device, not on WhatsApp’s servers.

Not a peep(ing Tom)

The content of messages you send over WhatsApp “are not copied, kept or archived by WhatsApp in the normal course of business,” the company says. Messages are only stored for the amount of time it takes to deliver the message. If a message goes undelivered for 30 days – a user has to be online for delivery to take place – it’s automatically deleted.

This isn’t ‘Nam, there are rules

WhatsApp only uses your “personally identifiable information” – information that can be linked back to you – for a few purposes. First, it will share you Status Submissions with any user that has your mobile number on their phone, as long as you haven’t blocked that user. Second, it may share you personal information for marketing purposes – but only if you give the company permission to do so. (See more on its advertising policy below.) And finally, it will use your data (both the personally identifiable type, and anonymized type) to help make the service better – at least, that’s the goal. “Hopefully we improve the WhatsApp Site and Service and don’t make it suck worse,” the company writes. Why can’t more terms and privacy policies be written like this?

(Note: If WhatsApp is ever sold, or the company goes bankrupt, all of its rules about how your privacy is used may go out the window. That’s basically always the case, with any company. But just keep that in mind – nothing is forever.)

Stay ad-free

The people at WhatsApp say explicitly that they “are not fans of advertising.” Because of this, “WhatsApp is currently ad-free and we hope to keep it that way forever.” Are you listening, every other company? Because this is what users want.

T&C Bonus:

This has nothing to do with WhatsApp specifically, but it’s worth mentioning: The good folks at Newsbound have put together an extremely useful slideshow about privacy polices. It’s a must-read for anyone who cares about how their information is used by companies. For instance, did you know that companies are not legally required to have a privacy policy at all? It’s true – sadly. Learn about this and more in the slideshow below:


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