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Turkey investigates WhatsApp and Facebook over data privacy update

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By Matthew Holroyd with AFP
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WhatsApp users outside of Europe could soon start seeing more targeted ads on the messaging platform.
WhatsApp users outside of Europe could soon start seeing more targeted ads on the messaging platform.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Patrick Sison, File
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Turkey's competition authority has opened an investigation into WhatsApp over a new update that requires users to share more data with its parent company, Facebook.

The popular messaging platform has been widely criticised for asking its users to agree to the new terms or lose access to their accounts from February 8.

Facebook is hoping to monetise WhatsApp by allowing advertisers to contact customers directly via the app. The new terms will only affect business account users in the UK or European Union, Facebook has confirmed.

But outside of Europe, users must agree to share information on their mobile phone, internet service provider with Facebook's subsidiaries. This data could also contact and profile information, with the exception of message content, which remains encrypted.

A spokesperson for the tech giant stated that updates to privacy policies are "commonplace in the industry” and that the company is providing users with all the necessary information.

'Unacceptable'

However, in Turkey, authorities confirmed that they were probing Facebook and WhatsApp over the policy, and have called for the new terms to be "suspended" pending its findings.

Several government ministers have also urged citizens to use other locally-developed messaging applications in favour of WhatsApp, such as BiP by mobile phone operator Turkcell.

The Head of Turkey's Digital Transformation Office, Ali Taha Koc, said that foreign applications pose serious security risks.

"The distinction between EU members and other countries in terms of data privacy is unacceptable," Koc tweeted on Saturday.

"We have to protect our digital data with our local apps."

On Sunday, BiP said that two million new users had downloaded its application in the last 48 hours since WhatsApp's update was made visible to users.

Rival messaging apps Signal and Telegram have also seen a sudden increase in demand.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently targeted social media companies with new restrictions and fines, forcing them to establish a presence in the country and obey court orders to remove "offensive" content.

Critics say the laws have stifled online opposition voices in Turkey after the government had previously tightened its grip on mainstream media.

Why do the new terms differ for Europe?

Facebook, like other big tech companies, has faced months of criticism from Europe and the US over its competition behaviour and privacy terms.

The new version of WhatsApp's privacy policy for European users states that data can be shared with other Facebook companies to show personalised advertising and offers.

But Facebook has confirmed that the company will only be used to develop the new functionalities offered to WhatsApp Business accounts. Ordinary users in Europe will not see any changes to their data privacy terms, although they will need to accept the terms to continue to use the messaging app.

Facebook says it does not use WhatsApp information for direct advertising purposes in Europe because of previous negotiations with European data protection bodies.

The exemption has been welcomed by representatives in the bloc as a victory for EU privacy regulators.

When questioned further on the subject, a European Commission spokesperson pointed that Facebook was fined €110 million euros in 2017 for providing inaccurate information during an investigation into its takeover of WhatsApp.