Controversial WhatsApp policy change hit with consumer law complaint in Europe
The consumer protection association umbrella group, the BEUC, said today that together with eight of its member organizations it has filed a complaint with the European Commission and the European network of consumer authorities.
“The complaint is first due to the persistent, recurrent and intrusive notifications pushing users to accept WhatsApp’s policy updates,” it wrote in a press release.
“The content of these notifications, their nature, timing and recurrence put an undue pressure on users and impair their freedom of choice. As such, they are a breach of the EU Directive on Unfair Commercial Practices.”
After earlier telling users that notifications about the need to accept the new policy would become persistent, interfering with their ability to use the service, WhatsApp later rowed back from its own draconian deadline.
However the app continues to bug users to accept the update — with no option not to do so (users can close the policy prompt but are unable to decline the new terms or stop the app continuing to pop-up a screen asking them to accept the update).
“In addition, the complaint highlights the opacity of the new terms and the fact that WhatsApp has failed to explain in plain and intelligible language the nature of the changes,” the BEUC went on. “It is basically impossible for consumers to get a clear understanding of what consequences WhatsApp’s changes entail for their privacy, particularly in relation to the transfer of their personal data to Facebook and other third parties. This ambiguity amounts to a breach of EU consumer law which obliges companies to use clear and transparent contract terms and commercial communications.”
The organization pointed out that WhatsApp’s policy updates remain under scrutiny by privacy regulations in Europe — which it argues is another factor that makes Facebook’s aggressive attempts to push the policy on users highly inappropriate.
And while this consumer-law focused complaint is separate to the privacy issues the BEUC also flags — which are being investigated by EU data protection authorities (DPAs) — it has called on those regulators to speed up their investigations, adding: “We urge the European network of consumer authorities and the network of data protection authorities to work in close cooperation on these issues.”
The BEUC has produced a report setting out its concerns about the WhatsApp ToS change in more detail — where it hits out at the “opacity” of the new policies, further asserting:
WhatsApp remains very vague about the sections it has removed and the ones it has added. It is up to users to seek out this information by themselves. Ultimately, it is almost impossible for users to clearly understand what is new and what has been amended. The opacity of the new policies is in breach of Article 5 of the UCTD [Unfair Contract Terms Directive] and is also a misleading and unfair practice prohibited under Article 5 and 6 of the UCPD [Unfair Commercial Practices Directive].
Reached for comment on the consumer complaint, a WhatsApp spokesperson told us:
BEUC’s action is based on a misunderstanding of the purpose and effect of the update to our terms of service. 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. The update does not expand our ability to share data with Facebook, and does not impact the privacy of your messages with friends or family, wherever they are in the world. We would welcome an opportunity to explain the update to BEUC and to clarify what it means for people.
The Commission was also contacted for comment on the BEUC’s complaint — we’ll update this report if we get a response.
Update: A Commission official told us:
We have received the alert from the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) who today filed a complaint against WhatsApp for multiple breaches of EU consumer rights.
The European Commission will carefully consider all the elements brought forward by BEUC together with the national consumer authorities in the coming weeks to assess the need for further investigation into the matter and a possible coordinated action as foreseen under the Consumer protection cooperation (CPC) regulation.
Coordinated actions are regularly conducted by the CPC network whose objective it is to enforce consumer rights consistently across the Single Market.
We expect all companies providing services in the EU to comply with EU data protection rules.
Under the GDPR, supervising and enforcing its rules is the responsibility of the national data protection authorities, where necessary cooperating with the European Data Protection Board.
The Commission is closely following this issue.
The complaint is just the latest pushback in Europe over the controversial terms change by Facebook-owned WhatsApp — which triggered a privacy warning from Italy back in January, followed by an urgency procedure in Germany in May when Hamburg’s DPA banned the company from processing additional WhatsApp user data.
Although, earlier this year, Facebook’s lead data regulator in the EU, Ireland’s Data Protection Commission, appeared to accept Facebook’s reassurances that the ToS changes do not affect users in the region.
German DPAs were less happy, though. And Hamburg invoked emergency powers allowed for in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in a bid to circumvent a mechanism in the regulation that (otherwise) funnels cross-border complaints and concerns via a lead regulator — typically where a data controller has their regional base (in Facebook/WhatsApp’s case, that’s Ireland).
Such emergency procedures are time-limited to three months. But the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) confirmed today that its plenary meeting will discuss the Hamburg DPA’s request for it to make an urgent binding decision — which could see the Hamburg DPA’s intervention set on a more lasting footing, depending upon what the EDPB decides.
In the meanwhile, calls for Europe’s regulators to work together to better tackle the challenges posed by platform power are growing, with a number of regional competition authorities and privacy regulators actively taking steps to dial up their joint working — in a bid to ensure that expertise across distinct areas of law doesn’t stay siloed and, thereby, risk disjointed enforcement, with conflicting and contradictory outcomes for Internet users.
There seems to be a growing understanding on both sides of the Atlantic for a joined up approach to regulating platform power and ensuring powerful platforms don’t simply get let off the hook.
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