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Facebook’s WhatsApp messaging service is raising its minimum age in Europe to 16 to comply with GDPR which comes into force on May 25th.
Up until now, the minimum age has been 13, and that minimum age will remain for the rest of the world, in line with its Facebook parent company. WhatsApp, founded in 2009, has an estimated 1.5 billion users.
The age 13 limit up until now has been based upon the US law “Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule” (Coppa), which bans online services from collecting personal information about younger children. This is why the usage of many other popular social media apps e.g. Snapchat, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, Musical.ly and Reddit are restricted to persons aged 13 and over.
WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook faced criticism after announcing last December that it would be targeting younger children with its ‘Messenger Kids’ service. At the time, Facebook’s primary (stated) motive for the new junior version of its platform was to provide a safer, more age-appropriate version, but some tech and business commentators suggested that it may also be an ideal way for Facebook to recruit its next generation of users, and to capture the attention of 6 to 12-year-olds before Snapchat or a similar social network competitor.
The recent Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal has brought the matter of collecting and sharing of our personal data into sharp focus. WhatsApp, however, has said that the new changes do not mean that it will be asking for any new rights to collect personal information in the agreement it has created for the European Union. WhatsApp says that the goal of the change is simply to explain how they use and protect the limited information they have about users.
As well as the age restriction change, WhatsApp is also, therefore, rolling out a feature with the latest version of the app that allows users to download a report detailing the data that WhatsApp holds on them e.g. the make and model of the device they used, their contacts, their groups and any blocked numbers.
Facebook is also updating its data policy to comely with GDPR which involves asking 13 and 15-year-old users to nominate a parent or guardian to give permission for them to share information on the platform. If they won’t / cannot do so, the young users will not be able to see a fully personalized version of the social media platform.
Also, Facebook’s Instagram is launching a data download tool to provide users with a file containing the photos, comments, archived stories, contacts and any other personal data that they’ve posted to the service in the past.
This story is another clear reminder that the introduction of GDPR is just around the corner as the tech giants, who have more to lose in fines, potential lost customer numbers, and serious reputational damage, make the necessary legal moves to ensure compliance. For Facebook especially, they have faced some very high profile bad publicity this year over their handling and sharing of personal data, so getting their GDPR compliance house in order may be a way to help avoid any further problems.
There is also a very serious ethical element to this story. It is estimated that Facebook has 20 million under-13-year-olds currently using the network, and there may also be a very large number of children using WhatsApp. Parents may understandably have serious concerns about what content children can have access to and, equally importantly, who can have access to children via social networks. Unsuitable material, commercialisation, bullying (or predatory behaviour by some adults) are just some of the issues to consider.
As well as these concerns, governments (such as the UK) are looking to stop end-to-end encryption in WhatsApp, GDPR is just around the corner, Facebook is now facing more tough questions about its Cambridge Analytica links, Martin Lewis (OBE) is taking Facebook to court for defamation and calling for Facebook to take responsibility for its actions … the pressure is now seriously on big social media platforms to make some changes, particularly where EU users are concerned.