A re-cap of the situation - back in January, WhatsApp announced a coming update to its privacy terms which would mean that some data from people's interactions with businesses within WhatsApp could be shared with parent company Facebook. At no point was people's personal messaging information or interaction data in WhatsApp, which is end-to-end encrypted, set to be shared between the two companies, but either way, the announcement sparked a major backlash, which saw millions of people downloading alternative messaging apps like Signal and Telegram in an attempt to move away from the app.
The user response must have been significant, because two weeks after the initial announcement, WhatsApp decided to delay the change in order to give the company more time to explain the update, and to better prepare users for what was happening.
Then, early last month, WhatsApp started showing users in-app alerts once again, notifying them of the coming change, though with clarified wording and more specific explainers.
WhatsApp had clearly hoped that these more specific prompts would alleviate concerns, but evidently, they did not.
Last month, the Indian Government called on the messaging giant to withdraw the change entirely, citing concerns about data sharing, while German regulators also called for an EU-wide ban on the update, questioning the implications of its new data-sharing processes.
India is a particularly significant concern for Facebook in this respect, with the company planning for major expansion in the region, which is also home to WhatsApp's largest single-nation user base (530+ million users).
But Facebook needs to implement the update to take the next steps forward with its WhatsApp monetization plans, so it subsequently launched its own counter legal action against the Indian Government last week in order to push through the change.
Which is not good for Facebook's longer-term prospects in the region. Which is why this new update makes some sense.
Last week, WhatsApp made a change to the wording of the terms around its coming update, which effectively eliminates any form of user penalty for not accepting the change.
When WhatsApp announced its second attempt at rolling out the change, it explained that:
Those limitations, which would escalate over time, were set to include:
- Inability to access your chat list
- Removal of the ability to receive incoming calls or notifications
- Eventually, WhatsApp "will stop sending messages and calls to your phone"
But now, WhatsApp is removing these penalties entirely.
In the newly worded explainer, WhatsApp says that:
"Considering the majority of users who have seen the update have accepted, we'll continue to display a notification in WhatsApp providing more information about the update and reminding those who haven’t had a chance to do so to review and accept. We currently have no plans for these reminders to become persistent and to limit the functionality of the app."
So no penalties for not accepting. If you don't agree, you don't have to accept the new terms, and there will be no impact on your account.
Which is a significant step back - and maybe, that'll be enough to placate Indian officials and avoid further tensions that could derail Facebook's future plans in the region.
"There will also be other opportunities for those who haven’t accepted the updates to do so directly in the app. For example, when someone reregisters for WhatsApp or if someone wants to use a feature that's related to this update for the first time."
So WhatsApp has quietly watered down its potential penalties to avoid further conflicts, though only after getting 'the majority of users' to accept its new terms under threat of app deactivation.
Will that be enough to alleviate all concerns - and will regulators and officials be satisfied with Facebook's business practices in this respect, in essentially using bully tactics, even if they subsequently walked them back?
It's an interesting implementation, which underlines the rising tension between online platforms and various government authorities over the use of user data, which looks set to remain a key point of contention for the immediate future at least.
But for now, WhatsApp users will not be obligated to accept the new policy. Until, at some stage, they are.
Which could be the next point of conflict for the app.