When one company acquires another, there’s usually a lot of discussion about how to harmonize divergent procedures – everything from personnel policies to buying paper clips. But a letter to executives at Facebook and WhatsApp from Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, should remind businesses there's one thing that doesn’t change: privacy promises made to customers.
The letter focuses on Facebook’s proposed acquisition of WhatsApp, a company that offers an instant messaging service to hundreds of millions of users worldwide. The staff’s concern: WhatsApp has made certain promises about limits on what it collects, maintains, and shares – protections that go beyond those currently made to Facebook users. The letter makes it clear that regardless of the proposed acquisition, consumers have a right to rely on those promises remaining in full effect. If the acquisition is completed and the promises aren’t kept, both companies could be in violation of Section 5 of the FTC Act – and, potentially, the FTC’s order against Facebook.
This shouldn’t come as news to FTC watchers: “The FTC has made clear that, absent affirmative express consent by a consumer, a company cannot use data in a manner that is materially inconsistent with promises made at the time the data was collected, and that such use of data could be an unfair practice under Section 5.”
You’ll want to read the letter for the specifics. It offers a detailed analysis of what WhatsApp promises, what both companies have said since then, and how a failure to honor those pledges could possibly result in law enforcement. And it underscores the FTC’s commitment to consumers: “Hundreds of millions of users have entrusted their personal information to WhatsApp. The FTC staff will continue to monitor the companies’ practices to ensure that Facebook and WhatsApp honor the promises they have made to those users.”