Facebook and WhatsApp are now officially forbidden to mass-share user data in Germany, following a decision from the Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information. The Wednesday ruling prevents Facebook and its popular instant messaging (IM) service from sharing data about its users on a massive scale without obtaining explicit consent from their customers. The decision was made in response to a controversial change to the Terms of Service of both online platforms that was announced last August and said the Menlo Park-based social media giant and its IM subsidiary will start sharing data about their users between themselves. That turn of events led to significant backlash from the general public, privacy watchdogs, and political institutions across Europe, as neither company obtained permission from its users to change its Terms of Service in that way, with opponents of the decision arguing that users didn’t agree to their data being shared without their consent and/or knowledge when they’ve initially signed up for an account with WhatsApp or Facebook, at least in the context of these two particular companies sharing data between themselves.
While the Hamburg Commissioner’s ruling seems like yet another blow to Facebook’s efforts to use WhatsApp’s user data for its other services, recent reports that surfaced earlier this month indicated that the Menlo Park-based Internet company is close to settling the matter with the European Union. Regardless, the decision was not only made to protect 35 million WhatsApp users in Germany but is also meant to serve as a precedent for other European authorities that are currently investigating the matter of WhatsApp sharing user data with Facebook, the German privacy watchdog said.
This controversy doesn’t only threaten Facebook’s future plans for WhatsApp, as the company might also end up paying significant fines seeing how its 2014 acquisition of the communications service was approved by authorities in Europe because the firm said it has no intentions of merging the two services or sharing user data between them. While the company’s purchase of WhatsApp is now once again being reviewed by the European Commission, the Hamburg Commissioner noted that Facebook is still legally able to create a data-sharing program with WhatsApp, as long as that solution would ask its users for consent.