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Totalitarian Techies: WhatsApp to Sue Users for ‘Abuse’ Based on ‘Off Platform’ Evidence

© AFP 2023 / LIONEL BONAVENTUREThe logo of mobile app "WhatsApp" is displayed on a tablet on January 2, 2014 in Paris
The logo of mobile app WhatsApp is displayed on a tablet on January 2, 2014 in Paris - Sputnik International
There are increasing calls among some activist groups and governments for social media companies to do more to disable abuse on their platforms by implementing stricter rules and codes of conduct. However, Whatsapp’s latest announcement may be a cause for advocates of such measures to think twice.

Popular messaging service, Whatsapp, has pledged to take legal action against individuals or companies who break its user rules by committing ‘abuse,’ even if evidence of the offence is found on another platform.

The household app is already governed by strict user guidelines which can see anyone banned for offences such as accidentally adding people to a group chats who weren’t in the user’s contact list, or just sending messages to unknown users generally.

However, now the Facebook-owned company plans to get a few steps further by actually reserving for itself the right to drag users of its services into the courtroom.

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Yet, if the idea of being taken to court by a transnational tech giant isn’t alarming enough, the company also plans to take action against individuals even in the case of “off platform-evidence of abuse.”

“WhatsApp is committed to using the resources at its disposal – including legal action – to prevent abuse that violates our terms of service, such as automated or bulk messaging, or non-personal use. This is why in addition to technological enforcement, we also take legal action against individuals or companies that we link to on-platform evidence of such abuse. WhatsApp reserves its right to continue taking legal action in such circumstances,” the company announced.

Whatsapp apparently characterises “abuse” of its services as the use of bulk messaging, automated spamming or the “non-personal use” of the app. However, it is likely that many will complain that those standards are too vague, and don’t make clear exactly what constitutes as “abuse” under Whatsapp’s strict guidelines.

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Whatsapp says that anyone who leaves off-platform evidence of abuse after December 7 2019 could well find themselves in the company’s legal firing line: “Beginning on December 7, 2019, WhatsApp will take legal action against those we determine are engaged in or assisting others in abuse that violates our Terms of Service, such as automated or bulk messaging, or non-personal use, even if that determination is based on information solely available to us off our platform.”

“For example, off-platform information includes public claims from companies about their ability to use WhatsApp in ways that violate our Terms. This serves as notice that we will take legal action against companies for which we only have off-platform evidence of abuse if that abuse continues beyond December 7, 2019, or if those companies are linked to on-platform evidence of abuse before that date. We are committed to reinforcing the private nature of our platform and keeping users safe from abuse,” they add.

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The move appears to be part of a wider effort by Whatsapp’s parent company, Facebook, to placate demands, both among publics and governments, that it do more to prevent online abuse of its systems. The UK Conservative government in particular has been relentlessly calling for a more concerted global effort to rein in what it referred to in a February 2019 report as “digital gangsters” like Facebook that are often not held to account for the content posted on their platforms. In one of the most recent incidents, it was revealed that families in Nigeria had been selling their daughters as slaves via the social media platform, sparking international outcry.

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