Privacy on Social Networks: Facebook and WhatsApp

Converged communicators who have been studying for next week’s MMC3200 (Law and Ethics in Communication) work know that privacy has become a legal and ethical minefield in the new media landscape. One ethical discussion in the text focuses on Facebook and the Web giant’s decidedly questionable record on privacy practices over its history. Now, a new acquisition may add further ammunition for Facebook’s critics.

Earlier this week, Facebook made the stunning move to acquire the mobile messaging app maker WhatsApp for $19 billion – a staggering figure. (Yes, the word is billion, beginning with B.) As Fahmida Y. Rashid explains for PC Magazine, this deal may further aggravate the privacy concerns associated with social networking. Not only has Facebook faced stiff criticism for its privacy policies, but WhatsApp has its own issues. The company has acquired phone numbers from both its own users and its users’ contacts, even those not using the service. There are also security concerns because of weak encryption. All of these matters have led to clashes between WhatsApp and government officials in Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. These nations often have stronger privacy protections than the United States, an example of the differences in legal and political environments that we’ve discussed in GEB3373 (International Business).

What does the future hold? Other than making someone very rich – $19 billion is big, big money – it’s hard to tell. Some critics fear that Facebook will simply take over WhatsApp’s stored contact information, a move that would be unpopular with consumers and could raise a red flag for regulators. In any case, it’s an example of how privacy matters apply in the world of international business, linking together two distinct themes of converged communications.

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