WhatsApp makes big privacy changes but South African law demands more

Although WhatsApp has launched several pro-privacy changes, it is still far from compliant with South Africa’s Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA).

Barnard Inc. Attorneys senior associate Chanique Rautenbach has said that although WhatsApp still falls short of POPIA, its recent changes are a step in the right direction.

These include being able to block individual contacts from seeing their profile picture, status, and “last seen” information.

WhatsApp owner Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook) also rolled out an indicator in group calls showing when someone joins, with the ability to mute or message someone even if you didn’t create the group call.

Rautenbach noted that it is not only WhatsApp that falls short of South Africa’s POPIA requirements — all of the services provided by the Meta group of companies still fall short.

Meta owns and operates Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

She also recalled the public outcry in 2021 to unilateral changes Facebook made to the WhatsApp user terms dealing with privacy.

The company issued an ultimatum — users had to accept the new terms by 8 February 2021, or WhatsApp would stop working for them.

As the backlash erupted, Facebook quickly issued a statement assuring that the changes were only about business messaging.

Facebook explained it had given businesses the option to use its secure hosting infrastructure to host their WhatsApp chats if they don’t want to store their messages themselves.

“Every user will be notified within the chat if the business they are talking to has chosen to use Facebook’s secure hosting infrastructure to store their WhatsApp messages, and people do not have to message or interact with businesses on WhatsApp if they choose not to do so,” Facebook stated.

However, the ultimatum had drawn people’s attention to changes in WhatsApp’s privacy policy implemented months before.

It states:

As part of the Facebook family of companies, WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information with, this family of companies. We may use the information we receive from them, and they may use the information we share with them, to help operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services and their offerings.

Facebook soon extended the deadline for accepting the new terms from 8 February to 15 May 2021.

South Africa’s Information Regulator also weighed in on the matter, saying that Facebook should adopt the same approach here as it had under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

Ultimately the company caved, allowing users to keep using WhatsApp even if they don’t accept the new terms.

Instead, those users will not be able to communicate with businesses that use Facebook’s hosting until they accept the new privacy policy.

WhatsApp still presents a popup at least once a week to users who have not accepted its new terms, encouraging them to do so.

Rautenbach said that WhatsApp users might be slightly comforted by its latest privacy updates.

“It remains critical for the users to acquaint themselves with the terms and conditions of WhatsApp and to understand what they agree to by their continued use of the messaging platform,” she said.

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WhatsApp makes big privacy changes but South African law demands more