But not all at once. If you haven’t accepted the new policy by now, you’ll start to see more pop-ups in WhatsApp outlining the changes with a big green Accept button at the bottom. If you tap it, WhatsApp will continue to share certain account data of yours with Facebook. If you’d rather not agree, you’ll at first be able to hit a back arrow in the upper left corner of the overlay. Over time, though, the pop-ups will appear more frequently. Eventually you won’t be able to click away at all, and the app’s functionality will start to degrade.
WhatsApp originally indicated in February that anyone who declined the updates would immediately lose functionality. But the company has since opted to let the wheels very gradually come off the car over several weeks before the app careens into a ditch and stops working altogether.
“For the last several weeks we’ve displayed a notification in WhatsApp providing more information about the update,” the company said in a statement. “After giving everyone time to review, we’re continuing to remind those who haven’t had the chance to do so to review and accept. After a period of several weeks, the reminder people receive will eventually become persistent.”
The strength of the backlash likely caught WhatsApp off-guard, given that it reminded users of an existing policy rather than creating a new one. Mere days after WhatsApp first announced the changes on January 4, the messaging app Telegram said it had gained tens of millions of users, and Signal boasted “unprecedented” growth. In an attempt to staunch the bleeding, WhatsApp delayed the full rollout of the new policies for months so users would have more time to learn about the changes.
“We’ve spent the last few months communicating directly with users about our update,” a spokesperson told WIRED in a statement. “The majority of people have already accepted the update, and for anyone who hasn’t, we won’t be deleting their account on May 15 and we’ll be giving plenty of opportunities for them to review the update in the future. We know WhatsApp is a lifeline for many people around the world.”
There’s still the matter, though, of the lengths WhatsApp has had to go to to carry off this routine policy update. “When your users have made it clear that they would rather not accept a new policy, and your response is to very gradually push them out of an airlock, it doesn’t prove that they’re happy about it just because they eventually accept,” says Johns Hopkins University cryptographer Matthew Green.
The other option would be to sever those connections with Facebook, but after years of sharing certain account data, both organizations likely consider rolling back the 2016 change as either inconceivable or intolerable. Or both.
The gradual removal of features is unusual, says Whitney Merrill, a privacy and data protection lawyer and former Federal Trade Commission attorney. But other companies go even further, she says, locking users out altogether until they accept a new policy. “In a way this is more friendly,” Merrill says. From WhatsApp’s perspective, the slow burn gives users more chances to accept and keep using the app rather than being shut out and defecting to competitors for good.
“WhatsApp is being relied on more than ever right now and we want to keep it that way,” the spokesperson told WIRED.
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