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FTC: OK Facebook, swallow WhatsApp – but NO selling people's data without permission

It must stick to existing Ts&Cs, rules regulator

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Facebook's multi-billion-dollar slurp of WhatsApp has been given the go-ahead by US regulators – with the caveat that the social network sticks to the messaging service's privacy policy.

The Federal Trade Commission said in a letter to the two firms that WhatsApp would have to stick to the privacy promises it had already made to its users, even after the merger.

“We want to make clear that, regardless of the acquisition, WhatsApp must continue to honour these promises to consumers. Further, if the acquisition is completed and WhatsApp fails to honour these promises, both companies could be in violation of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act and, potentially, the FTC’s order against Facebook,” said Jessica Rich, director of the bureau of consumer protection, in the letter.

The commission was referring to a 2011 settlement of charges against the social network that it deceived users by changing its privacy policy. One of the terms of the deal was that Facebook is required to get affirmative consent from folks before making any changes to privacy rules, rather than relying on opt-outs after the fact.

The FTC made it clear that if Facebook wants to make any changes to how it uses data collected from WhatsApp, it will have to inform users and get their consent and the companies both need to ensure they don't misrepresent the extent of the privacy and security of user data.

"WhatsApp's privacy policy clearly states, among other things, that users' information will not be used for advertising purposes or sold to a third party for commercial or marketing use without the users' consent. Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp would not nullify these promises and WhatsApp and Facebook would continue to be bound by them," Rich wrote.

"Further, Facebook has recently promised consumers that it would not change the way WhatsApp uses customer information. Therefore, any use of WhatsApp's subscriber information that violates these privacy promises, by either WhatsApp or Facebook, could constitute a deceptive or unfair practice under the FTC Act."

Users and privacy advocates kicked up quite a fuss when Facebook announced its proposed $19bn acquisition of WhatsApp, with some even launching legal proceedings to try to put a stop to it.

Facebook said that it was chuffed that the merger had cleared the US regulatory hurdle.

"Naturally, both companies will continue to comply with all applicable laws after the transaction closes," the social network added.

The messaging service's hundreds of millions of users were all promised that WhatsApp was not interested in their data for advertising services. As part of its commitment, the app only stores mobile phone numbers, without names, emails and other personal info.

But users were concerned that Facebook could either incorporate WhatsApp information into its own databases for advertising and marketing purposes, or start flogging ads to chatters on the IM app.

The FTC said that it would be monitoring the companies' practices to ensure that Facebook and WhatsApp kept their word to users. The deal will still need regulatory approval in other regions, like Europe, before it can be finalised. ®

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