WhatsApp has rewritten its legal policy for the first time since 2012, ostensibly with the aim of making it easier to understand, but it brings in a few big changes along the way. For one thing, the terms now officially reflect the fact that WhatsApp is a part of Facebook, and secondly, they now open up the possibility of WhatsApp being used for commercial messaging. We went over the new terms in detail, and here are some of the key points that we read, and what they mean to you.
Your messages are yours, and we can’t read them. We’ve built privacy, end-to-end encryption, and other security features into WhatsApp. We don’t store your messages once they’ve been delivered. When they are end-to-end encrypted, we and third parties can’t read them.
Right at the start of the document, this point is important because it outlines the relationship between Facebook and WhatsApp, allowing the latter to say that it doesn't share information with third parties, while still giving your numbers to Facebook. At the same time, it also makes clear that nothing you post on WhatsApp will be shared to Facebook, which is a reassuring sign, for now.
Since Facebook is in the picture, the next question people will naturally have is whether the texts you send will be used to further target advertising at you. WhatsApp also reassures users here that it cannot read messages, which are encrypted end-to-end by default.
WhatsApp has grown dramatically under Facebook’s ownership, though the world’s largest social network has so far maintained a totally hands-off approach, at least as seen from the outside. WhatsApp now has over 1 billion monthly active users, the company says, but it's not been making money off them as yet. At the other end of the spectrum, China's WeChat is an economic powerhouse - it can be used as an e-commerce platform, supports public accounts that can display ads, it's used for taxi hailing and money transfers; none of which can really be done using WhatsApp because there was no official API for businesses to use.
New ways to use WhatsApp. We will explore ways for you and businesses to communicate with each other using WhatsApp, such as through order, transaction, and appointment information, delivery and shipping notifications, product and service updates, and marketing. For example, you may receive flight status information for upcoming travel, a receipt for something you purchased, or a notification when a delivery will be made. Messages you may receive containing marketing could include an offer for something that might interest you. We do not want you to have a spammy experience; as with all of your messages, you can manage these communications, and we will honor the choices you make.
Possibly the most important part of the new update, though one that's been glossed over by the imminent prospect of WhatsApp sharing your contacts with Facebook - is the fact that the company is now looking at new ways for brands to use WhatsApp. We go into more detail further down in the terms where this is explored in full, but WhatsApp makes it clear from the above text that it is looking at entering commercial messaging. And given the enormous reach of WhatsApp, it's possible to see it as a viable alternative to bulk SMS.
As mentioned above, WhatsApp hasn't been a revenue driven organisation - in fact, with its no-ads policy, there was almost no way for it to make any money. WhatsApp launched as a paid app on iOS, and then switched to a freemium model - you'd have to pay to keep using it after a point - but it waived the fee for many users. Earlier this year, it went completely free, as WhatsApp started working on figuring out how these commercial messages should work. The result is here in front of us now, and shows a path for WhatsApp to finally start making money.
Commercial Messaging. We will allow you and third parties, like businesses, to communicate with each other using WhatsApp, such as through order, transaction, and appointment information, delivery and shipping notifications, product and service updates, and marketing. For example, you may receive flight status information for upcoming travel, a receipt for something you purchased, or a notification when a delivery will be made. Messages you may receive containing marketing could include an offer for something that might interest you. We do not want you to have a spammy experience; as with all of your messages, you can manage these communications, and we will honor the choices you make.
This is the full section dealing with new ways to use WhatsApp, and makes it clear that the company is looking to find ways to start making some money through brands. Soon, your bank could send you a notification over WhatsApp, or you could get a message from your airline telling you the flight is delayed. At the same time, you might be able to opt out of receiving these messages, looking at the last line.
For businesses, this could be a very appealing prospect, as a WhatsApp message could include images, rich links, formatting, and more, making it a much better tool for branded communication than an SMS. From a user’s perspective, at least part of the reason why the visiting SMS is inbox is a horrible experience is because of the mindless clutter that comes from promotional and user transactional messages - and that's something that WhatsApp also used to believe, if you look at its earlier terms.
In 2009, WhatsApp's policy was really simple. "We have not, we do not, and we will not ever sell your personal information to anyone. Period. End of story," wrote founder Jan Koum. By 2012, the policy had... evolved - WhatsApp's policy now stated, "We do not use your mobile phone number or other Personally Identifiable Information to send commercial or marketing messages without your consent or except as part of a specific program or feature for which you will have the ability to opt-in or opt-out." Today, it reads: "We will explore ways for you and businesses to communicate with each other using WhatsApp."
From thumbing its nose at big business, to opening up the possibility of opt-out programs to straight up exploring ways to make it work for business, shows a marked shift in focus over the years.
We joined the Facebook family of companies in 2014. 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. This includes helping improve infrastructure and delivery systems, understanding how our Services or theirs are used, securing systems, and fighting spam, abuse, or infringement activities. Facebook and the other companies in the Facebook family also may use information from us to improve your experiences within their services such as making product suggestions (for example, of friends or connections, or of interesting content) and showing relevant offers and ads. However, your WhatsApp messages will not be shared onto Facebook for others to see. In fact, Facebook will not use your WhatsApp messages for any purpose other than to assist us in operating and providing our Services.
And now, another part that has people a little worried - thanks to being a part of the "Facebook Family", WhatsApp's data will be used to "improve and customise" other Facebook offerings. These might also use your WhatsApp data to show offers and ads. Your messages will not be shared, for now.
The rest of the document is fairly standard and falls within typical norms - for example, in the acceptable use section WhatsApp warns that it will delete your account for posting hate speech, obscene materials (not defined by likely meaning porn), infringing on intellectual property (i.e. piracy), but it does so right after telling you that it can't read your messages, and it adds that if your IP is being infringed, you should try and resolve it by messaging the person you believe is infringing your materials. In other words, it's fairly standard legal language to ensure that WhatsApp doesn't get sued for something you do while using the platform.