The recent Terms of Service update by WhatsApp has revealed the true colours of the Facebook-owned messenger service. In effect, it gives the service’s approximately 400 million users in India an ultimatum – they must either agree to share their personal data with the social network or delete their accounts. In other words: accept the spyware or you’re out. This is yet another illustration of the urgent need for data sovereignty in order to give users more choice and control over their data.  

Tellingly, a line of text about the company respecting “strong privacy principles” has been removed from WhatsApp’s newest Terms of Service. Moreover, if users decide to delete the app from their device, it does not automatically mean that WhatsApp deletes the private data it already holds about the user. The only way to ensure this is for users to delete their account using the in-app feature – and even then, some data will remain with the company, such as information related to groups created and copies of messages sent to other active users.

The new requirement is being delivered through an in-app alert forcing users to agree to sweeping changes in the WhatsApp Terms of Service. Those who don’t accept the revamped privacy policy by 8 February 2021 will no longer be able to use the app. 

As the Data Sovereignty Now (DSN) movement, we strongly reject this move. It is our firm belief that users must have ‘data sovereignty’, i.e. control over their own data and the freedom to migrate their data easily to another platform whenever they wish. In a data-sovereign world, users would no longer face such a stark ultimatum if a company decided to update its terms of service. Instead, they would have a third choice – to move to another platform and still be able to communicate with all their contacts, irrespective of which platform they are all using.

Society seems to have grown to accept this concept of closed tech platforms, despite it being far from logical. After all, interoperability is standard practice in the telecom industry; imagine only being able to make phone calls and send text messages to contacts who are signed up to the same telecom provider! But the current situation has created a handful of Big Tech giants who, due to their dominance, are benefiting from an unfair competitive advantage. 

In an interoperable world, the best players win, not the biggest. We believe that this can only be achieved by adjusting the ‘data benefit balance’ back in the user’s favour. Data sovereignty holds the key to transforming the tech landscape and taking the digital economy to the next level so that the size and dominance of a platform is no longer the only paradigm. We are optimistic about the future now that European legislative proposals are being built upon the principle of data sovereignty, but there is still plenty of work to be done in terms of awareness and adoption.

In this context, we call on the European Data Protection Board (EDPB), the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) and European Commissioner Margarethe Vestager to officially respond to WhatsApp’s breach of data sovereignty principles. 

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