Facebook's WhatsApp deal gets US approval, with a caution

WhatsApp founder Jan Koum has said he understands the importance of privacy, as an immigrant who grew up in the old Soviet Union.  When Facebook bought the service earlier this year, Koum and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised not to change WhatsApp’s longstanding policy of not collecting or sharing users’ contacts, location information or other personal data.

Now the Federal Trade Commission has put Koum and Zuckerberg on notice that they had better keep their word.

“We want to make clear that, regardless of the acquisition, WhatsApp must continue to honor these promises to consumers,” said Jessica Rich, the director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, in a letter to both companies this week.

Any failure to honor those promises, Rich warned, could violate the FTC’s guiding legislation and a 2011 legal agreement in which Facebook settled allegations of privacy violations by promising it will obtain users’ affirmative consent before making any changes to their privacy settings.

Privacy groups had already raised concerns about the WhatsApp deal when it was announced. Two groups, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy, warned the FTC in a letter last month that Facebook has assimilated user data from other services that it has acquired in the past, including Instagram.

“We believe that despite claims that they would preserve WhatsApp’s more privacy-friendly approach, the ultimate plan was to expand its mobile data collection practices and fully integrate it into Facebook,” the CDD’s Jeff Chester said in an email  this week. He added: “The FTC is to be commended for sending a very strong signal that they will hold Facebook and WhatsApp accountable for their promises.”

While Koum and Zuckerberg have already pledged to honor WhatsApp’s policies, some critics have also accused WhatsApp of being lax about protecting user data with encryption and other safeguards.

But in response to the FTC’s letter this week, a Facebook spokeswoman said: “We’re pleased the FTC has completed its review and cleared our acquisition of WhatsApp. Naturally, both companies will continue to comply with all applicable laws after the transaction closes.”

FTC’s Rich said her agency will be watching closely:

“Hundreds of millions of users have entrusted their personal information to WhatsApp. The FTC staff will continue to monitor the companies’ practices to ensure that Facebook and WhatsApp honor the promises they have made to those users.”

(WhatsApp logo from Wikimedia)

Brandon Bailey Brandon Bailey (350 Posts)

Brandon Bailey covers Google, Facebook and Yahoo for the San Jose Mercury News, reporting on the business and culture of the Internet.