By Simon Davies
When the Washington Post publishes detailed coverage of a tech industry rumour, you can bet there’s some substance in the rumour. At least such has been the paper’s history so far.
The $.99 subscription fee keeps the service ad-free – a much-loved benefit to users that pundits believe is not likely to last long if Google is successful in acquiring the company.
WhatsApp is feared by more traditional social networks like Google+ and Facebook because it enables real-time messaging across smart phone networks. The $.99 subscription fee keeps the service ad-free – a much-loved benefit to users that pundits believe is not likely to last long if Google is successful in acquiring the company. The service is highly intuitive and sidesteps some of the transaction baggage of the big networks. It allows users to communicate with one another in brief, text message-like spurts. It’s efficient.
Perhaps the most attractive asset to Google – and the aspect that should be of most concern to anyone who cares about privacy – is WhatsApp’s user population and how Google will likely attempt to monetize that asset. If Google is successful in acquiring the company it will be able to lock in many millions of new users by requiring those customers to set up a Google Account.
If Google is successful in acquiring the company it will be able to lock in many millions of new users by requiring those customers to set up a Google Account.
Just last week, CNIL President Isabelle Falque Pierrotin announced that Google was still in breach of European law for failing to protect the data it collects. The very real prospect of the company amalgamating phone data with search and other data is exactly what regulators feared.
Adding WhatsApp to this data gathering arsenal would enable Google to conquer one of the last-remaining user data streams that it does not already own, control or dominate.
This concern is not academic. By thrusting its hand into every data stream running to or from user devices, Google will be in an unprecedented position to gather more data about more individuals than any other entity on the planet. The transactional and associative data alone would be vast.
This prospect – combined with Google’s existing track record on privacy and compliance – is a cause for grave concern. If Google indeed is planning to acquire WhatsApp, then regulators must examine the effect of that acquisition – not only on competition – but also on consumer privacy. If they do, it will be quite clear that – at a minimum – Google should be prohibited from combining user data from WhatsApp with data collected through other products and services.
Regulators were not able to stop Google from combining user data in the past. They can and must start here.