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Why did WhatsApp change its terms of service in the first place?
The company wants to launch a range of features for businesses to make WhatsApp a place where users not only chat with friends, but also shop, plan and organise their lives. Announced back in October 2020, these new tools have two main purposes.
For smaller businesses, it is going to become easier for them to make a storefront on WhatsApp. They will be able to upload catalogues directly into the app, and ultimately complete an entire purchase without ever needing to send a user anywhere else.
For larger businesses, WhatsApp plans to launch a series of technical tools to make it easier for them to integrate WhatsApp with their pre-existing technology. Those tools could allow them to, for instance, send messages automatically as orders are shipped.
Why do new business features mean a change in the terms of WhatsApp?
Underlying all these features is a major change in WhatsApp’s relationship with Facebook. The shopping features, for instance, would overlap with a similar service for Facebook. And so, rather than forcing businesses to keep track of stock on two entirely separate online storefronts, WhatsApp is letting them simply run the same online shop over both platforms.
The services for larger businesses would let them simply contract out the work of running their WhatsApp features directly to Facebook, meaning that when you message a big company, that text could be delivered to the same servers that run Facebook itself.
If users ignore the business features, WhatsApp says, then none of this overlap with Facebook is even relevant to them. But in its terms of service, particularly the version poorly communicated in January this year, that was left unclear, and many panicked, thinking they were going to see a more wholesale integration between the two apps.
Who even shops on WhatsApp?
Hundreds of millions of people, according to Matt Idema, WhatsApp’s chief operating officer. “Every day over 175 million people communicate with a business on WhatsApp,” Idema told the Guardian in October, when the changes were first announced. “It’s a significant and growing part of what we see as the value that the app creates.”
While WhatsApp is mostly used as a simple chat app in the west, in many of the company’s core markets – developing nations such as India, Brazil and Indonesia – it’s much further on its way to becoming an “everything app”, in part because its simple layout works well on low-powered phones with limited data caps.
So is WhatsApp integrating with Facebook?
Actually … yes. Although these terms of service really do only affect the business features of the app, underlying the discussion is the fact that Facebook has announced a long-term plan to integrate WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram. It has already pulled that off for the latter two, but the company is struggling to work out how to do the more complex work of tying in WhatsApp – a service where every message is end-to-end encrypted, and where users are contacted with phone numbers, not usernames. At some point in the future, though, it seems likely that Messenger users will be able to send a text or photo directly to someone who only has WhatsApp installed.