Facebook Faces German Bid to Halt WhatsApp Data Collection

One of Germany’s toughest data regulators is seeking an administrative order that would stop Facebook Inc. from collecting user data from its WhatsApp unit.

The regulator in the city of Hamburg is seeking an “immediately enforceable order” before May 15 over concerns that policy changes could lead to the use of such data for wider marketing and advertising purposes.

“WhatsApp is now used by almost 60 million people in Germany and is by far the most widely used social media application, even ahead of Facebook,” Johannes Caspar, the data commissioner, said in a statement Tuesday. “It is therefore all the more important to ensure that the high number of users, which makes the service attractive to many people, does not lead to an abusive exploitation of data power.”

WhatsApp delayed the introduction of a new privacy policy earlier this year after confusion and user backlash forced the messaging service to better explain what data it collects and how it shares that information with its parent company. The U.K.’s top data-protection regulator told lawmakers in January that millions of people have stopped using WhatsApp in favor of alternative messaging services such as Telegram and Signal.

Facebook said in a statement that it’s reviewing the correspondence it has received from the Hamburg regulator and “will address their misunderstandings around the purpose and effect of the update” and that it remains “committed to delivering secure and private communications for everyone.”

“To be clear, by accepting WhatsApp’s updated terms of service, users are not agreeing to any expansion in our ability to share data with Facebook, and the update does not impact the privacy of their messages with friends or family wherever they are in the world,” Facebook said.

The company will have a chance to respond to the allegations at a hearing, the regulator said.

Up to now there has been no supervisory review of the actual processing operations between WhatsApp and Facebook that we are aware of,” Caspar said. “There is reason to believe that the provisions that will enable and expand the sharing of data between WhatsApp and Facebook will be unlawfully enforced due to the lack of voluntary and informed consent.”

He said the formal case was opened “to prevent unlawful mass data sharing, if necessary, and to put an end to unlawful consent pressure on millions of people.”

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