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Facebook is tightening control over WhatsApp user data as the United States lags behind in privacy

“We cannot continue to allow the world’s largest companies based in the United States to break their promises,” said Lori Trahan (D-Mass.), Who is pushing some House Democrat Democrats to force Facebook to turn of course, said in an interview. “Facebook must keep its promise to that of the founders of WhatsApp in order to give priority to the privacy of its users.”

The conflict underscores Congress’s growing struggle to test the power of technology companies, even when voters are in their hands.

Technology companies are growing and innovating faster than the laws and leaders in Washington can move, and it̵

7;s unclear how the new administration and Congress will catch up. Prolonged stagnation of legislators in the national privacy law has left the door open for the most influential players in the technology world – including Facebook, Apple and Google – to self-regulate and write their own books on how data can be shared between companies and around the world.

WhatsApp and Facebook have long exchanged valuable metadata – “data data”, as Trahan put it – which offers a look at user behavior and is extremely important to advertisers. But the growth of the U.S. messaging app at the start of the pandemic, along with its entanglement in antitrust suits and probes around the world, has brought a new level of control over the way its data on its more than two billion users is shared in the Facebook ecosystem.

Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp in 2014 is now the main focus of antitrust claims from the FTC and attorneys general in almost every country. Cases alleging that Facebook bought WhatsApp to prevent it from becoming a rival that will hijack its users seek to force Facebook to separate WhatsApp and Instagram. Brazil and the European Union are also taking action against Facebook in connection with the processing of data by WhatsApp users.

And now users are being asked to give Facebook more power to use information about their WhatsApp shopping habits for advertising and marketing purposes.

The company stressed that the actual content of personal messages remains encrypted from end to end and is not visible to Facebook or advertisers.

Public interest groups say Facebook is misleading users by reproducing encryption protections.

“This is not about protecting confidentiality, this integration; it’s just the opposite, “said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy advocacy group. “This is about exposing the tens of millions of WhatsApp users who use it for vital communications on a daily basis to allow the company to track them more effectively and target them with advertising and marketing to strengthen its end position.”

Despite calls for regulatory scrutiny on Facebook and a halt to its WhatsApp plans, Washington is quick to cede Silicon Valley land in terms of privacy. Congress’s continued failure to pass federal data privacy laws – held back by inappropriate points that are far from allowed – has given Facebook and other technology companies room to set their own standards.

“We can’t allow the industry to create a new privacy regime on a factual basis,” Chester said, “but because there is no privacy law, because the FTC is generally considered weak, anything happens.”

Although WhatsApp is updating its policies worldwide due to EU privacy rules known as the General Data Protection Regulation, it will not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices in the European region.

In the absence of legislation in the United States, many see antitrust enforcement, including the potential unraveling of Facebook, as a side effect to address privacy issues.

Senator Mark Warner (D-Va.), Who spoke on other issues related to WhatsApp, called for greater scrutiny of WhatsApp’s “extreme concern” about the new privacy policy.

“I hope that competition authorities will take a closer look at this as they explore the ways in which the largest platform companies, such as Facebook, have tried to consolidate their dominance, including in mobile communications,” he said.

Others are looking for agencies. Trahan, a member of the Spanish Congress, who raised concerns about a policy change that has a disproportionate effect on Americans from Spain who use the app, called for more resources for the Federal Trade Commission “to review mergers and file confidentiality cases.” so that we can avoid these types of data rights violations in the future. “

And Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Chairman of the Senate Consumer Protection Subcommittee, called for an investigation by the country’s top consumer protection agency. “The FTC must vigorously review its decree agreeing with Facebook, launch a new investigation into possible violations and hold individual executives accountable,” he said in an email.

But these pathways may be far in the future and WhatsApp is transforming its data practices now. And experts worry that the more these policies are strengthened – in the United States and around the world – the harder it will be to go back.

Burchu Kilic, director of the digital rights program for the progressive public advocacy group Public Citizen, said that if global regulators had been “more diligent” on Facebook’s deal to buy WhatsApp years ago, today it would be an app , which is more privacy-friendly.

“They could not see the far-reaching consequences,” she said. “Now we’re done with an app we use – and for many people, their lives depend on it, but we have to compromise some of our data.”

Trahan, one of Massachusetts’ largest immigrant communities, called the policy change a “fake choice” for many voters. For them, WhatsApp is a lifeline for communicating with family members abroad, especially in Latin America, due to the high cost of traditional text messaging there, she said.

“There is no alternative,” she said. “This is their form of communication with their relatives abroad. Either you get involved or you have no other way to communicate. “

Facebook says that the growth of WhatsApp and the irresistible acceptance of the new conditions by users show that they are on board with the changes.

“Most of the people who received [the information] accepted the update and WhatsApp continues to grow, “said WhatsApp spokesman Daniel Meister.

Still, some of the platform’s biggest competitors have seen huge growth before the changes to WhatsApp take effect, suggesting resistance to the update. A report by data analytics firm Sensor Tower found that the use of WhatsApp has been declining, even more drastically, in the months since the privacy changes were announced.

Facebook also said that those who did not accept the terms would not be removed from WhatsApp on May 15 and that the platform would not stop working for them – at least not yet. Instead, these users will begin to see increasingly constant messages to review and accept the revised policy, and the application will slowly stop working.

Some experts describe such a technique as “nagging”, “confirming-shame” or “intimidating the consumer”.

“Consumers are getting tired of this,” said Lior Strahilewitz, a law professor at the University of Chicago who focuses on data confidentiality, at a recent FTC seminar. “In the end, they just say, ‘Well, in the end, they’ll catch me, so I can go on and agree.’ “

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