On Saturday, WhatsApp will finally begin to force users to accept its controversial new terms of service, almost half a year after it first announced plans to do so.
Despite an immediate backlash from users, millions of sign-ups to rival messaging firms, and even questions asked in the House of Commons,
WhatsApp has pushed ahead with the new rules.
The company says the actual changes are small, and that the wave of panic from users in January was driven more by misinformation spread, ironically, on WhatsApp itself than by any reasonable concerns.
But, analysts say, acceptance of the rules is crucial if Facebook is to achieve its goal since it bought WhatsApp for $19bn in 2014 – to turn the service into the western equivalent of WeChat, an “everything app” where users can chat not only with friends and family, but also order pizzas, pay utility bills, and contact essential government services.
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Despite the fury from some users, the plan looks like it might succeed. Just under one in four users know that the app plans to change its terms and conditions, despite 95% of Britons using WhatsApp, according to stats from the global research platform Appinio. Even fewer, less than 15%, say they no longer
“want” to use WhatsApp because of the planned changes, and history suggests many of them will stick around on the app anyway.
The struggle dates back to October 2020, when WhatsApp first announced its plans to update the app. A new set of features would allow small businesses to upload their catalogues direct to the app, letting any WhatsApp user message a company, browse their wares and complete a purchase, all without needing to leave WhatsApp.
The goal of the changes was clear, says the analyst Martin Garner of CCS Insight. “Facebook has ambitious plans for expanding its messaging services to achieve what Tencent has done in China with WeChat, where people interact with businesses and shops, plus pay for goods and services using the messaging app.
“WeChat also has its own mini apps and games, and has become an essential part of the fabric of day-to-day life there. Achieving this position would be a huge prize for Facebook.”