Feds put Facebook on notice over privacy

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is warning Facebook to protect its users' privacy as the company finalizes its $19 billion purchase of messaging application WhatsApp.

In a letter to the social media giant on Thursday, the commission’s consumer protection division warned the company that the deal was not a license to change the app’s privacy rules.

Violating those rules, bureau director Jessica Rich warned, could open the company up to new charges.

“Hundreds of millions of users have entrusted their personal information to WhatsApp,” Rich wrote to executives at the California-based Web titan. “The FTC staff will continue to monitor the companies' practices to ensure that Facebook and WhatsApp honor the promises they have made to those users.”

Unlike Facebook, which collects lots of information about its users in order to target advertisements and other notifications to them, WhatsApp promises not to collect names, email addresses or other personal information about its more than 430 million users.

“Facebook's purchase of WhatsApp would not nullify these promises and WhatsApp and Facebook would continue to be bound by them,” Rich wrote. 

The letter came as the FTC declined to take more formal action to block or delay the deal.

In a statement, a Facebook spokeswoman said that the company was "pleased the FTC has completed its review and cleared our acquisition of WhatsApp."

Executives at both companies have promised users that nothing will change after the massive buyout announced earlier this year, but some consumer advocacy groups have remained unconvinced.   

Last month, privacy advocates urged the FTC to open an investigation into whether the purchase would lead to “unfair and deceptive” activity banned under federal law. 

If WhatsApp wanted to change its policies in light of new ownership, it would need to get users consent first, Rich said. After that, it would need to be honest about what how data was being used and allow people opt out if they wanted.

In 2011, Facebook settled charges with the FTC alleging that it deceived people by making some of information public without their knowledge. Under the terms of that deal, the company is required to respect users’ privacy, make any changes to its privacy policy obvious and get consent before it shares information.