Are Third Party Apps using WhatsApp Legal?

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Are Third Party Apps using WhatsApp Legal?

In 2016, WhatsApp already had over a user base of over one billion users.  With it being the most popular messaging application in the world, surely there has to be a way to us ...

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In 2016, WhatsApp already had over a user base of over one billion users.  With it being the most popular messaging application in the world, surely there has to be a way to use it as an automated digital marketing tool, especially for businesses?

The short answer is:

No

That’s right.  Despite the fact that Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook paid $19 billion for WhatsApp in February 2014, you can’t create programs that communicate with WhatsApp.  For Facebook Messenger, developers can create programs called ‘bots‘ (already available in South Africa) and similarly for Skype, Skype bots can be developed (available in various countries, but not yet supported in South Africa).  Users can add these bot applications as if they are adding a normal contact, although they are usually identified as ‘robots’ by using a differently styled avatar (icon).  When a person talks to these bots through the messenger app (e.g. Messenger or Skype), you are actually talking to a software program (sometimes the software may also be relaying the messages to a single or a group of people, but the messages are going through the ‘bots’).

Those services who claim to have WhatsApp integration, is doing it as a ‘hack’:  It’s unofficial and as soon as this is detected by WhatsApp, it is shut down.  There are however some software applications who seem to be finding ways to continually circumvent these restrictions, but they are definitely not official and WhatsApp would probably shut them down, if they could find a way to do it – so businesses who are using these third party solutions, are doing so at own risk.

So, why is Facebook not adding bots support, or an interface for other applications to communicate and use WhatsApp?

Here are some interesting facts:

  • This excerpt was taken directly from WhatsApp’s website, titled ‘Why we don’t sell ads’:
    • “At WhatsApp, our engineers spend all their time fixing bugs, adding new features and ironing out all the little intricacies in our task of bringing rich, affordable, reliable messaging to every phone in the world. That’s our product and that’s our passion. Your data isn’t even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of it.  When people ask us why we charge for WhatsApp, we say “Have you considered the alternative?”
  • WhatsApp messages are encrypted end to end – this means, no one, not even WhatsApp can intercept or read your messages.

The bottom line is:  WhatsApp believes communication should be free and private.  This is further supported by the fact that in January 2016, WhatsApp removed the $1 annual subscription fee (note, this is after the Facebook acquisition in 2014).  There is thus no indication that Facebook is about to interfere with the WhatsApp business model.  So why did Facebook purchase WhatsApp for $19 billion?  Well, one myth has been busted – it wasn’t to analyze the messages being sent between billions of users and it wasn’t to generate money from ads.

‘Setting the record straight’ (WhatsApp website):

Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA, and we built WhatsApp around the goal of knowing as little about you as possible: You don’t have to give us your name and we don’t ask for your email address. We don’t know your birthday. We don’t know your home address. We don’t know where you work. We don’t know your likes, what you search for on the internet or collect your GPS location. None of that data has ever been collected and stored by WhatsApp, and we really have no plans to change that.

If partnering with Facebook meant that we had to change our values, we wouldn’t have done it. Instead, we are forming a partnership that would allow us to continue operating independently and autonomously. Our fundamental values and beliefs will not change. Our principles will not change. Everything that has made WhatsApp the leader in personal messaging will still be in place. Speculation to the contrary isn’t just baseless and unfounded, it’s irresponsible. It has the effect of scaring people into thinking we’re suddenly collecting all kinds of new data. That’s just not true, and it’s important to us that you know that.

Make no mistake: our future partnership with Facebook will not compromise the vision that brought us to this point. Our focus remains on delivering the promise of WhatsApp far and wide, so that people around the world have the freedom to speak their mind without fear.”

Some theories are:

  • WhatsApp was a direct competitor of Facebook’s own Messenger app and now since both are under one umbrella, Facebook can better integrate to invite more people to Facebook. This in turn means more users, it can show ads too.
  • One of the most important reasons – WhatsApp is built by a team of 50 people, mostly engineers and the system is able to support more than 1 Billion users. Imagine the number of messages flowing in and out every minute and yet, there isn’t a single message drop or any message arriving out of order. It all works flawlessly and perfectly. The WhatsApp server is a truly magnificent piece of software and hardware coming together.

It seems there was a bit of a ‘crack’ in this iron clad policy, when WhatsApp controversially updated its terms and conditions in 2016, to include some sharing of profile info with other products in the ‘Facebook family of apps’.

“Does this mean my information will be shared onto Facebook for others to see?

Nothing you share on WhatsApp, including your messages, photos, and account information, will be shared onto Facebook or any of the Facebook family of apps for others to see. This means, for example, although some information will be shared with Facebook (such as your phone number), that information will not be seen by other people on Facebook. In addition, when you and your contacts use the latest version of our app, your messages are end-to-end encrypted by default. When your messages are end-to-end encrypted, only the people you are messaging with can read them – not WhatsApp, Facebook, or anyone else.”

With the strong core values of privacy and not selling ads, I don’t see how Bot technology or APIs (Application Programming Interface – allowing other apps to connect & use an application) could be introduced to WhatsApp, without a significant amount of controversy.  So, if it were to happen, I’d bet it would be all over the news at the time.   In the mean time, digital marketers are left to drool, while dreaming at the possibility of selling via the most used messenger platform in the world, to billions of potential customers.

So, is it Legal to use WhatsApp for Commercial Purposes?

Here is an extract from WhatsApp’s terms:

Commercial Messaging. We will allow you and third parties, like businesses, to communicate with each other using WhatsApp, such as through order, transaction, and appointment information, delivery and shipping notifications, product and service updates, and marketing. For example, you may receive flight status information for upcoming travel, a receipt for something you purchased, or a notification when a delivery will be made. Messages you may receive containing marketing could include an offer for something that might interest you. We do not want you to have a spammy experience; as with all of your messages, you can manage these communications, and we will honor the choices you make.” (2017/05/12)

It seems earlier versions of the terms and conditions were more restrictive, but (in my opinion) this latest version seems to be quite permissive of commercial uses of WhatsApp.

This extract seems to suggest that WhatsApp is busy experimenting with some commercial uses of its platform: “WhatsApp is testing making restaurants, airlines and credit card firms pay to contact consumers, its Chief Executive Jan Koum said in January, when the company announced it is dropping its token $1 fee levied on some of its users (2016/07/24)”.

There are those who think the success of bots on the Facebook Messenger platform might affect the future strategy of WhatsApp to adopt bots…  I guess only time will tell, but it doesn’t seem as if Facebook is under any financial pressure to change direction in terms of WhatsApp anytime soon…

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