Groups ask US FTC to investigate Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp

The proposed deal raises concerns about WhatsApp users' privacy, two groups say

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission should investigate Facebook's proposed US$19 billion acquisition of mobile messaging app WhatsApp -- and possibly block it -- because of the potential impact on users' privacy, two privacy groups said in a complaint filed Thursday.

While WhatsApp has demonstrated a "strong commitment to user privacy," Facebook's current messaging service collects and stores "virtually all available user data," the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy wrote in their complaint.

WhatsApp has promised users that it would not retain or sell personal information, and many users selected the service based on its privacy protections, but Facebook has collected user data from companies it acquires.

"WhatsApp users rely on WhatsApp to maintain the privacy of their communications," Julia Horwitz, EPIC's consumer protection counsel, said by email. "Our complaint urges the FTC to investigate whether there are sufficient privacy protections in place to continue to shield the data of WhatsApp users from access by Facebook -- which (for many users) was the very feature that made WhatsApp so appealing in the first place."

If Facebook begins collecting WhatsApp user data, that would be a deceptive business practice because of WhatsApp's former privacy promises, the groups said. "WhatsApp's failure to adequately disclose that this commitment to privacy was subject to reversal conditions" would violate FTC rules, the groups wrote.

If the FTC does not block Facebook's acquisition of WhatsApp, it should "insulate" the app's users from Facebook data collection, the groups said.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the acquisition won't change WhatsApp's privacy practices. "Facebook's goal is to bring more connectivity and utility to the world by delivering core internet services efficiently and affordably -- this partnership will help make that happen," she said by email. "As we have said repeatedly, WhatsApp will operate as a separate company and will honor its commitments to privacy and security."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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