Turkish phone operators join forces to facilitate use of local messaging apps

Turkey’s leading telecommunication companies and prominent phone operators Turkcell, Türk Telekom and Vodafone signed a cooperation agreement Friday to facilitate the common use of local messaging and social media applications, a move that followed the update to Facebook-owned WhatsApp’s privacy policy.

According to the joint statement made by the three companies, Türk Telekom customers will be able to use Turkcell’s messaging app BiP, and Turkcell users will be able to use Türk Telekom’s new generation social media platform Yaay without using their data allowances. BiP and Yaay, along with other applications, will also be offered free of charge in Vodafone’s Communication Pass package.

The agreement came as a move of solidarity that will contribute to the common use of domestically developed apps instead of WhatsApp, which has drawn harsh criticism recently over its new regulation that forced Turkish users to choose between accepting the data-sharing policy or leaving the application. Many users have already switched to alternatives like BiP, Telegram or Signal, which was promoted by Elon Musk. The alternative applications have been breaking records on new downloads from the app stores of both Apple and Android since the announcement of WhatsApp’s new regulation.

Turkcell General Manager Murat Erkan said in the company’s statement that they signed a historic agreement for Turkey and Turkish citizens can now use domestic applications developed by the country’s engineers with peace of mind.

Emphasizing that the data of the Turkish users will stay safely within the country in this way, Erkan noted that the agreement, which is set to contribute to the preference for Turkish messaging apps, will pave the way for new cooperation in the near future.

He thanked all those who contributed to the realization of this agreement, particularly Türk Telekom and Vodafone executives.

Türk Telekom CEO Ümit Önal also commented on the step, saying that the importance of local apps has become more obvious since the WhatsApp move.

Önal said the cooperation agreement will provide significant support for all users to experience these social media and messaging platforms. “The three big companies in Turkey showed a good example of solidarity. We all reconfirm our contribution to Turkey’s digitalization vision by offering innovative digital platforms. This step we take together makes our efforts even more valuable,” he said.

He stressed his wish to see more cooperation in this regard in the coming period, thanking all parties involved.

Meanwhile, Vodafone Turkey CEO Engin Aksoy said they also support the sector in terms of the diversification of domestic alternative platforms. He noted that they have been offering the Vodafone Communication Pass package to their customers for four years, noting that the content of this package is being updated in line with the demand.

“We have decided to include local messaging and communication applications in the existing applications we offer as part of the Communication Pass. As of February, all our customers with the Communication Pass package will use their local messaging applications with other applications indefinitely and free of charge, and we will offer these applications free for one month to all our Vodafone customers,” he explained.

“As Vodafone, we will continue to work on sectoral and domestic platforms that will be developed by three operators together and that can compete at an international level,” Aksoy added.

‘Sovereignty issue’

WhatsApp’s introduction of controversial changes to its privacy policy that will allow it to share more data with its parent company Facebook has not only split users in Turkey but also raised questions worldwide on the power of technology companies to impose their rules on users. Privacy advocates have questioned the move, citing Facebook’s track record in handling user data, with many suggesting users migrate to platforms such as BiP, Telegram and Signal.

Officials in Turkey have also been recommending that citizens switch to local apps, and many public institutions have announced that they are moving to alternatives both in protest of the Facebook-owned application’s new policy and over private data protection ambiguities.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shared a message on BiP on Friday, encouraging the public to use domestic messaging apps.

The president touched upon the importance of ensuring cybersecurity in the digital world and emphasized the determination to protect the “cyber homeland,” referring to the protection of personal data and digital sovereignty rights.

Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Deputy Chairperson Mahir Ünal on Friday said the main thing here is that “you become an advertisement. As in the case of Cambridge Analytica, it is important for us that our data can be used for manipulation or advertising.”

In an interview with Turkish broadcaster NTV, Ünal said: “There is also a sovereignty situation that we have been discussing for a long time. WhatsApp’s approach has disturbed people. Now we see that has a tendency to form its own laws.”

WhatsApp states that, thanks to the end-to-end encryption technology it currently uses, text, audio and visual messages sent between users can only be seen by the sender and the receiver. However, WhatsApp’s new privacy terms ask users to agree to let the app’s parent company Facebook and its subsidiaries collect WhatsApp data that includes users’ phone numbers, contacts’ phone numbers, locations, IP addresses and more.

It was already voiced that most of WhatsApp’s data has been shared with Facebook since 2016, but sharing can be disabled if desired. The new contract removes this opt-out option, and users outside Europe must accept the changes or see their access to the service cut off starting Feb. 8.

The new terms that WhatsApp offers to its users do not cover European Union countries due to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in effect in the bloc countries. The regulation, which has been in force in the EU since May 2018, restricts or blocks the sharing of personal data of citizens with others not only on the internet but also in many areas. Users can also request the deletion of the information they previously provided.

With the GDPR, users in Europe have gained greater control over their personal data. It is necessary to fully inform individuals and obtain their explicit consent for the collecting, processing and storage of personal data. Similar regulations also exist in Turkey, however, Facebook, and therefore WhatsApp, does not abide by those in the country. Under Turkey’s new social media law, social media platforms such as Facebook are required to appoint at least one representative in the country to ensure the company can be held accountable. The company has not yet appointed a representative.

According to the law on the protection of personal data, explicit consent is necessary for the processing of such data. However, the consent given to WhatsApp is not legally explicit since it is required on the condition of using the application. Yet again, data such as political opinions, criminal convictions or ethnic origin are “private personal data” within the scope of the law on the protection of personal data, and it is obligatory to obtain separate consent for each. Consent given at once for all of these is not accepted as explicit consent under Turkish law.

Violation of the rules on personal data protection in Europe entails high fines. With the GDPR, if businesses violate personal data rules, European authorities can impose fines on companies of up to 20 million euros ($24 million), or up to 4% of the company’s worldwide turnover. When Facebook purchased WhatsApp in 2014, it pledged to the EU regulator that it would not collect personal data, share it between the two companies or merge user accounts. However, with the WhatsApp policy change, the parent company started to share various user data such as phone numbers and profile names with Facebook.

Acting on this, the EU Commission charged Facebook for acting contrarily to its initial statements during the merger assessment process in 2014 and violating EU regulations. The company was fined 110 million euros after Facebook’s responses and statements to the EU Commission were deemed insufficient.

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