WhatsApp said it is postponing a controversial update of its terms and conditions until 15 May. The company said users are no longer forced to accept the update by 8 February.
The update, which started earlier this month, resulted in many users fleeing to rival messaging services like Telegram or Signal amid concerns that WhatsApp was starting to share more personal data with its parent company, Facebook. The company claims the update does not expand its ability to share data with Facebook and is intended to allow users to communicate more easily with businesses on the messaging platform. The confusion over the update has led at least one regulator, in Italy, to start investigating and others, for example in Turkey, to suspend the service.
WhatsApp said its update was surrounded by misinformation and tried to clarify the situation with a page of FAQs. The company noted that it always protects personal conversations with encryption, so that neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see end-users’ private messages. It also said it does not keep logs of the recipients of its subscribers’ messages or calls. It also cannot see users’ shared location and it does not share contacts with Facebook.
The company added that it is going to do more to clear up the misinformation around the ways in which privacy and security work on WhatsApp. It will allow end-users to gradually review the policy at their own pace before its new business options become available on 15 May.
WhatsApp blundered into a public-relations disaster with its confusing announcement of policy changes in early January. Whether or not the changes—apparently motivated by a desire to integrate the OTT messaging service with e-commerce platforms—will actually end up compromising the security that users prize, the fact remains that tremendous damage has already been done to WhatsApp’s brand and subscriber base.
Within 72 hours of the announcement, 25 million users had left WhatsApp to join rival Telegram, and over 800,000 had joined Signal, another competitor. The fact that Telegram offers end-to-end encryption had a great deal to do with this mass migration, and the blow to WhatsApp’s subscriber base shows that in the world of online messaging, perception matters a great deal and decisions are made quickly.
WhatsApp has moved almost as quickly to contain and mitigate the damage, and its statements are, at least on their face, reassuring. But whether they can win back those who fled is unclear. What is clear, however, is that there are lessons here for both OTT players and mobile operators.
First, in today’s world, with security and privacy ever-growing concerns, and encryption technology increasingly sophisticated and prevalent, no mobile communications provider can afford to be behind the eight-ball or tone-deaf when it comes to these issues. Even the perception that a company is indifferent to customer concerns can be extremely damaging.
As far as MNOs are concerned, OTT players and WhatsApp in particular have been taking business away from them for years. It is not unthinkable, given the present crisis, that MNOs might be able to attract some messaging business back by offering the comforts of security and brand loyalty. And if they partner with software developers to create proprietary encrypted services, they could become even more persuasive.