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In a month where Facebook has been under serious scrutiny, the Cambridge Analytica scandal may well have hidden another story around privacy and data protection. As a result of an investigation from the UK’s data protection watchdog – the ICO – Facebook has been told that any sharing of user data across the two platforms would in fact be illegal.
Back in 2014, when Facebook acquired Whatsapp for a cool £19bn, the social network were actually fined a significant £94m by the EU, for their dubious ways of attempting to link user accounts. The EU stated: “It imposes a proportionate and deterrent fine on Facebook. The commission must be able to take decisions about mergers’ effects on competition in full knowledge of accurate facts.”
The fine was imposed because Facebook had knowingly misled the EU by denying it could link a user’s identity across the two platforms, through their phone numbers. It was confirmed later, that Facebook executives in fact did know that this was possible and of course would have played a part in the business decision to go through with the merger.
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and Founder of Facebook, has talked often and proudly about his desire to connect the world, although this desire has brought about an eco system where a user is not only connected to friends. Any person with an account will have their data linked across Facebook and Messenger, even phone calls and text messages have been logged, with data detailing to whom and at what time.
These connections have built a large and powerful dataset, where advertisers are more easily and granularly connected to potential audiences. Having the capacity to connect their 1 billion-plus Whatsapp users too, would give them an unprecedented advantage in an already un-diverse marketplace.
For advertisers, a potential link would likely be a positive move. Although Whatsapp won’t be able to reverse their main USP of message encryption, being able to link people further through their connections within message groups will allow for larger and more personal networks to be created and understood.
Opening Whatsapp up to Facebook targeting and giving access to advertisers in another highly engaged platform, will understandably be desirable in a time where fewer people are accessing Facebook and spending less time when they do.
The GDPR ruling will begin to highlight how Facebook and Whatsapp can move forward and whether any further connections can be made. However, given recent scandals, they must be even more careful not to lose the limited consumer trust.
As users become more savvy, Facebook will need to give them a reason to stay, rather than force them to use rival platforms. Their goal must still remain to be connecting people to people, not just to advertisers.