On August 25, instant-messaging app WhatsApp’s blog announced that the platform will now be sharing user data with its parent company Facebook, and other companies in the family.
Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014.
In a rather innocently-titled blog post, Looking Forward for WhatsApp, the company says, “But by coordinating more with Facebook, we'll be able to do things like track basic metrics about how often people use our services and better fight spam on WhatsApp. And by connecting your phone number with Facebook's systems, Facebook can offer better friend suggestions and show you more relevant ads if you have an account with them.”
The company also emphasized on privacy, “Even as we coordinate more with Facebook in the months ahead, your encrypted messages stay private and no one else can read them. Not WhatsApp, not Facebook, nor anyone else. We won’t post or share your WhatsApp number with others, including on Facebook, and we still won't sell, share, or give your phone number to advertisers.”
Essentially, WhatsApp says that it will now send Facebook our phone numbers and information about our user behavior so the ads on the social network can be better targeted. The coordinated effort also provides a new set of metrics to Facebook to improve efficiency and impress clients around the world. The data will not be SEEN by Facebook or anyone else. Just recently, WhatsApp had announced that it had been made an end-to-end encryption platform, so not even WhatsApp can sneak a peek into our messages.
Following the announcement, expectedly, there have been calls to users to not allow sharing data, and laments about the ‘loss of privacy’ and how advertising is evil.
Take for example this blog, a lawyer whipping up paranoia stating, “This includes sharing your phone number with Facebook in order to better tailor ads to you. Since there is no possible way this can be good for us, the users, it’s time to opt out.”
Even the MediaNama explainer starts out joking about how WhatsApp joined the advertising bandwagon which has us chasing cars and clothes, and working jobs to buy stuff we don’t need.
Messages are being mass-forwarded on WhatsApp asking people to disable the feature.
Now it is our choice to allow the social networking giant to access our data, or not. But before getting paranoid about it, here are a few things get straight.
WhatsApp and Facebook have revolutionized human society. Even the most anti-corporate activists will have to agree that Facebook has had a significant, positive impact on the way we communicate and campaign, and WhatsApp has made texting far easier.
WhatsApp and Facebook are free services. It takes money, a lot of money, and more than average brilliance to create such platforms. The creators and their team need to be paid, and deserve to make money from such endeavours.
If we want such services to remain free, we have to give something in return. While our privacy is an unfair ask, being subjected to ads without destroying our user experience is not. Of course, you can always choose not to use these services.
Advertising is a reality, and not as evil as it is made to be. At least, advertising is accountable, unlike many other things in our lives. Once enough people start complaining about ads, agencies have to change the way they advertise. Yes, they play on our emotions and even manipulate us, but the solution to that is being better informed ourselves, and that’s the price we pay for free stuff.
For instance, when people want to consume news all day long without paying a penny for it, and even want to insist on accountability to readers, they must understand that advertising is the only way to make it sustainable.
Advertising is no more just an irritating intrusion in our lives, it is a part of the free information economy. And with the belief that we can be informed enough to avoid falling for manipulative traps, I would also state that I don’t mind being pulled into buying something based on my emotions. If Facebook pops up an ad of Baskin Robbins just after I told my girlfriend I wanted to eat an ice-cream, I might even want to buy it.
The catch is, I should know this is happening.
Which is why, we must be campaigning for companies to be more transparent about their business model, and not trying to fail them. We should be told clearly what we are to expect of the platform. While WhatsApp has laid out what they are up to, the communication could have been clearer
We need awareness, not paranoia.
Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.