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Featured Article : WhatsApp Updates

Here we look at some of the latest WhatsApp updates and the value and benefits they deliver to users.

Search Conversations By Date For Android 

The first of three new updates of significance for WhatsApp is the “search by date” function for individual and group chats on Android devices. Previously, this function had been available on other platforms (iOS, Mac desktop and WhatsApp Web).

As featured on Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg’s WhatsApp channel (Meta owns WhatsApp), WhatsApp users on Android can now search for a chat on a particular date (not just within a range). For example, one-on-one or group chat details can be date searched by tapping on the contact or the group name, tapping on the search button, and then tapping the calendar icon (right-hand side of the search box), and selecting the individual date. This feature is likely to deliver a better user experience by giving greater precision and control and potentially saving time in locating specific messages.

Privacy Boost From User Profile Change 

Another potentially beneficial boost to the privacy aspect of what is already an end-to-end encrypted messaging app is (in the beta version) closing the loophole on sharing profile pictures without consent, impersonation, and harassment by preventing users from taking screenshots within the app. If users try to screenshot a profile picture, for example, WhatsApp now displays a warning message. Although the ability to download profile pictures was stopped 5 years ago, it was still possible to take screenshots. Closing this loophole in the latest update should, therefore, contribute to greater user privacy and safety.

Minimum Age Lowered To 13 

One slightly more controversial change to WhatsApp’ T&C’s’s terms and conditions however is the lowering of the minimum age of users in Europe (and the UK) to 13 from 16. This brings the service in line with its minimum age rules in the US and Australia, and the move by WhatsApp was taken in response to new EU regulations, namely the Digital Services Act (DSA) and the Digital Markets Act (DMA), and to ensure a consistent minimum age requirement globally. The two new regulations have been introduced both to tackle illegal and harmful activities online and the spread of disinformation, and to help steer large online platforms toward behaving more fairly.

In addition to the minimum age change, WhatsApp is also updating its Terms of Service and Privacy Policies to add more details about what is or is not allowed on the messaging service and to inform users about the EU-US Data Privacy Framework. The framework is designed to provide reliable mechanisms for personal data transfers between the EU and the US in a way that’s compliant and consistent with both EU and US law, thereby ensuring data protection.

Criticism 

However, although the minimum age change (which may sound quite young to many parents) will be good for WhatsApp by expanding its user base and good for users by expanding digital inclusion and family connectivity, it has also attracted some criticism.

For example, the fact that there’s no checking/verification of how old users say they are (i.e. it relies on self-declaration of age and parental monitoring) has led to concerns that more reliable methods are needed. The concern, of course, also extends to children younger than 13 accessing online platforms (e.g. social media) despite the set age limits.

In Meta’s (WhatsApp’s) defence, however, it already protects privacy with end-to-end encryption and has resisted calls and pressure for government ‘back doors’. It has also taken other measures to protect young users. These include, for example, the ability to block contacts (and report problematic behaviour), control over group additions, the option to customise privacy settings, and more.

Competitors 

Regarding compliance with new EU regulations, the European Commission has been actively engaging with large online platforms and search engines, including Snapchat, under the Digital Services Act (DSA). Also, given the widespread impact of these regulations on digital platforms and their emphasis on data privacy and security, it is likely that Signal (a competitor), and other messaging and social media platforms, are taking steps to align with these new requirements.

Some people may also remember that Snapchat came under scrutiny last summer from the UK’s data regulator to determine if it is effectively preventing underage users from accessing its platform. The investigation was in response to concerns about Snapchat’s measures to remove children under 13, as UK law required parental consent for processing the data of children under this age.

What Does This Mean For Your Business? 

The latest WhatsApp updates, alongside the broader implications of new EU and UK regulations, herald potentially significant shifts for businesses, messaging app users, and the industry at large. These changes, encompassing enhanced search functionalities, privacy safeguards, and adjustments to user age limits, will reshape some user experiences and offer both challenges and opportunities.

The “search by date” function for Android users should enhance user convenience and accessibility, save time, facilitate precise and efficient message retrieval, plus improve user engagement and satisfaction. Businesses leveraging WhatsApp for customer service or internal communications, for example, could find this feature particularly beneficial, i.e. by enabling quicker access to pertinent information, and streamlined interactions.

The extra privacy enhancements essentially reflect a growing industry-wide focus on user security and digital safety and will strengthen individual privacy (always welcome). They also emphasise the importance of user-consent and control over personal information and should remind businesses of the need to prioritise and manage user data both in line with (evolving) regulatory standards and today’s consumer expectations.

The adjustment of WhatsApp’s minimum user age in Europe and the UK presents a bit more of a nuanced landscape. While aiming to broaden digital inclusion and connectivity, this change also highlights the complexities of age verification and online safety. Messaging and other platforms, however, must find ways to navigate these complexities, ensuring compliance while fostering a safe and inclusive digital environment for younger users.

The broader context of the DSA and DMA, along with similar regulatory efforts in the UK, signal the transformative period that digital platforms are now in and although we can all see the benefit of curtailing harmful online activities, there’s also an argument for resisting pressure to go as far as giving governments back doors (thereby destroying the privacy and exposing to other risks). Messaging apps and social media platforms, including WhatsApp and its competitors (e.g. Snapchat, Signal, and others) have known regulations were coming, probably expect more in future, and are now having to adapt to enable compliance and retain trust while introducing other features valued for users at the same time.

Businesses using apps like WhatsApp (which also has a specific business version) are likely to already value its privacy features, e.g. its end-to-end encryption, for data protection. As such, they are unlikely to oppose any more helpful privacy-focused, or improved user experience changes, as long as they don’t interfere with the ease of use of the app (or result in extra costs).