Germany issues emergency data collection ban against Facebook over WhatsApp rules

Germany has banned Facebook from collecting data on WhatsApp users within its borders. The Hamburg Data Protection and Freedom of Information (HmbBfDI) commission claims that the app’s new data collection policies and Facebook’s heavy-handed efforts to get users to accept them violate the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Update (05/13/21): A WhatsApp spokesman reached out to TechSpot to clarify that the Hamburg DPA order does not impact the WhatsApp update as the DPA is raising concerns about data processing by Facebook that is not currently happening, and is not planned as part of this update.

Johannes Caspar, the commissioner of the HmbBfDI, indicated in a press release that Facebook has a history of user-privacy abuse, pointing to the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the recent leak of 500 million records. More urgently, Caspar fears that WhatsApp’s less than transparent advertising policies will influence German elections coming up in September.

“The data protection scandals of the last few years from ‘Cambridge Analytica’ to the data leak that recently became known, which affected more than 500 million Facebook users, show the extent and the dangers of massive profiling,” said Caspar. “This affects not only privacy but also the possibility of using profiles to influence voter decisions in order to manipulate democratic decisions. In view of the nearly 60 million WhatsApp users with a view to the upcoming federal elections in Germany in September 2021, the risk is all the more concrete, as these will arouse desires after influencing the opinion-forming of Facebook’s advertisers.”

The HmbBfDI has issued a three-month emergency injunction on WhatsApp’s data collection. In the meantime, it has asked the European Data Protection Committee (EDPC) to decide the case at the “European level.” If the EDPC finds that WhatsApp violates the GDPR, a more permanent ban that applies to member states, as well as Germany, will likely go into effect until WhatsApp changes its policies.

Facebook denies any wrongdoing. A spokesperson told Bloomberg the commission’s emergency order is based on a “fundamental misunderstanding” of WhatsApp’s terms and conditions. Facebook intends to roll out the new rules despite the ban.

After attempting to downplay its data collection policy, Facebook threatened to delete users accounts if they did not agree to the terms. However, after severe backlash, the social media giant dialed back the threat, opting to bombard the user with nagging consent popups instead. Continuing to ignore the “reminders” would result in the app gradually losing key features until it was all but useless. Users have until May 15 to agree to the new conditions.

This is not the first time Caspar has butted heads with WhatsApp. In 2016, the commissioner demanded Facebook stop collecting user data from WhatsApp. In that case, Facebook worked with Germany to iron things out. It does not appear that the social media platform is willing to cooperate this time.