Turkey's competition watchdog Monday said it officially launched an investigation into WhatsApp and its owner Facebook after the messaging app started forcing users to agree to let Facebook collect user data, sparking privacy concerns.
In a written statement, the Competition Board (RK) said it ruled the data-collection requirement should be suspended until the probe is complete.
"The Competition Board has opened an investigation into Facebook and WhatsApp and suspended the requirement to share Whatsapp data," it said.
In an announcement sent out last week, WhatsApp said users would have to agree to let Facebook and its subsidiaries collect WhatsApp data that includes users' phone numbers, contacts' phone numbers, locations and more.
The company warned users in a pop-up notice that they "need to accept these updates to continue using WhatsApp" – or delete their accounts.
The users must accept the changes or see their access to the service cut off from Feb. 8.
Social Media and Digital Security Education Research Association (SODIMER) Chairperson Levent Eraslan dubbed the RK's decision a “right move.”
Eraslan called WhatsApp’s decision an example of “digital fascism,” saying he expects a penalty to be imposed.
“WhatsApp has exempted European Union countries from the new practice. In the EU, the law on the protection of personal data is quite harsh. WhatsApp not exempting Turkey from its new terms is an example of digital fascism. We have a personal data protection law,” he said.
Eraslan stressed this law does not allow for the messaging app’s move. “What WhatsApp does is illegal,” he said.
“It (RK’s investigation) is a really good move. I hope that as a result of the investigation, the necessary decisions will be taken, and sanctions will be applied,” Eraslan said.
The Personal Data Protection Board (KVKK) also announced Monday that WhatsApp’s “mandatory update” would be discussed at Tuesday’s meeting.
Facebook has said European and U.K. users would not see the same data-sharing changes.
Some have decried the app's double standard, saying WhatsApp fears penalties from EU countries under data security rules.
Some privacy activists questioned the "accept our data grab or get out" move on Twitter, while WhatsApp's new usage terms prompted calls for users to switch to other messaging apps.
Rival messaging apps Signal, Telegram and BiP in Turkey have since seen a sudden increase in demand.
Turkish users took to Twitter to voice their concerns and initiated a #DeletingWhatsapp hashtag, which soon became one of the most trending topics.
Turkey's Defense Industries Presidency (SSB) Chairperson Ismail Demir Monday called the WhatsApp issue a matter of national security.
The Turkish Presidency's Directorate of Communications and the country's defense ministry said they were quitting WhatsApp and would move their groups to encrypted messaging app BiP, a unit of one of Turkey's leading GSM operators, Turkcell.
The head of the Turkish Presidency's Digital Transformation Office, Ali Taha Koç, also called for users to opt for BiP and Dedi, another app locally developed by Turkish engineers.
BiP adds 4.6 million new users
BiP has seen a significant surge in new users of the service over the last couple of days.
In a statement Monday, Turkcell said around 4.6 million new users joined the app over the last three days alone. The company rose as much as 3% in Borsa Istanbul Stock Exchange (BIST) trading.
The app is being used by millions across 192 countries. According to data provided by Turkcell, around 140 billion messages were sent over BiP in 2020. Calls made over the app reached 2 billion minutes. Some 150 million minutes of video calls were made throughout the year. It has more than 10 million monthly active users.
The app has been downloaded over 53 million times since it was launched in 2013.
Ataç Tansuğ, Turkcell's deputy general manager for digital services and solutions, said users can continue to use BiP without having to share their data with third parties.
"Our BiP application has been met with great interest in the last three days. At BiP, we store our users' data in Turkcell data centers of highest security within the borders of Turkey," he said in a statement.
In such applications, Tansuğ noted it is important that the data necessary for the provision of the service is received, processed and shared to the necessary extent within the consent of the users.
"For instance, BiP asks for access to the contacts to provide call and messaging services to its users," he said.
People flock to wrong stock
On the other hand, Signal's popularity shot up further after it was endorsed by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who has one of the most-followed accounts on Twitter, and by the micro-blogging site's top boss Jack Dorsey.
"Use Signal," Musk tweeted.
This tweet set off massive buying, yet of an unrelated stock, as investors mistakenly rushed to buy stock with a similar name.
A Texas-based technology company focusing on health care and industrial applications, Signal Advance, saw its shares rise from 60 cents before Musk's tweet on Jan. 7 to over $8 on Friday, for a total rise of around 1,300%. The company's value reportedly skyrocketed from around $55 million to some $660 million.
Over 100,000 users installed Signal across the app stores of Apple and Google on Thursday and Friday alone, while Telegram picked up nearly 2.2 million downloads, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.
New installs of WhatsApp fell 11% in the first seven days of 2021 compared with the prior week, but that still amounted to an estimated 10.5 million downloads globally, Sensor Tower said.
Telegram has become the most downloaded messaging app in Apple's App Store in Turkey over the weekend, followed by Signal and BiP.
For Android users, Telegram was again first in the Play Store, followed by WhatsApp and BiP.
Signal was launched in 2014 with the slogan: "Say hello to privacy." The app started to be preferred by more users after 2019. It was developed by a nonprofit organization in the U.S., The Signal Foundation and Signal Messenger.
Headquartered in London, Telegram was founded in 2013 by two Russian brothers, computer programmers Pavel Durov and Nikolai Durov.
Users 'illegally forced'
With the WhatsApp's updated usage terms, users are being "illegally forced to accept the breach of their data" if they want to keep using the service, said Berrin Kalsın, a professor at Istanbul-based Ibn Haldun University's Communication Faculty.
"Users who have accepted the update will now agree to share most of their data with Facebook, including contacts' numbers, location, chats and more, and if they do not agree to the update, their accounts will be taken away from them," Kalsın told Anadolu Agency (AA) Monday.
"In summary, with this update, users are illegally forced to accept a breach of their data if they want to continue using the messaging service," she said.
Big technology companies are seeking to achieve greater economic, cultural and political interests by applying different policies to different countries, Kalsın explained.
She said the move is distressing in many ways, adding that many users have already switched to other communication platforms such as Signal or Telegram.
Facebook has come under increasing pressure from regulators as it tries to integrate its services.
The EU fined the U.S. social media giant 110 million euros (then $120 million) for providing incorrect and misleading information about its 2014 takeover of WhatsApp concerning the ability to link accounts between the services.
Federal and state regulators in the U.S. have accused Facebook of using its acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram to squelch competition and filed antitrust lawsuits last month that aim to force the company to divest them.