The UK Information Commissioner is probing data protection concerns with the Threads social networking app from Meta, the company behind Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Meta launched the new social network at the start of July, in a bid to capitalise on user frustration with Elon Musk’s management of rival social app Twitter, now rebranded to X.
The US firm reported that more than 100,000,000 people signed-up for Threads, including many in the UK, in the first few days after it launched.
EU countries were not included in the Threads app launch due to “uncertainty” over whether it would comply with EU regulations. In Germany, a recent court ruling forced Meta to keep data collected from its various digital products separate unless users give explicit consent.
In response to a freedom of information request (FOI) sent by The Ferret, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) refused to release details of its communications with Meta about Threads but it confirmed that its “regulatory engagement with Meta on this issue is ongoing.”
Since Threads first launched privacy campaigners pointed out that the UK is supposed to have comparable data protection laws to the EU and called on the ICO to do more to enforce data protection rights for UK citizens.
Meta insists that its Threads app is fully compliant with both EU and UK GDPR rules.
Mariano delli Santi, legal and policy officer at Open Rights Group, said he believed Meta felt confident to launch Threads in the UK despite comparable privacy laws because the firm was confident the UK regulator would not take the firm to task.
“It is more than obvious that Facebook does not believe the ICO will enforce UK data protection standards,” he said.
He also pointed out that the Threads launch followed other moves the social networking giant has made to curb the rights of its UK users compared with their EU counterparts.
“This is just the last of a long list of instances where Facebook has degraded data protection and consumer protection standards of UK residents, despite the UK rulebook being formally aligned with the EU one.
“Facebook has already shifted users’ agreements for UK users away from the EU to its US terms, does not allow UK users to opt-out of personalised advertisements, nor do they plan to switch to a consent-based model of advertising like is happening in Europe,” he added.
Open Rights Group claims that without an ability to opt-out of personal data collection Meta will use data from the Threads app, like it does from Facebook, and Instagram, to enable advertisers to target or exclude users who may already be vulnerable or socially excluded.
This could, the campaign group says, make it harder for some groups to access things like housing or find out about job opportunities.
The UK Government plans to replace the UK GDPR rules that were carried over into UK law after Brexit, with a new Data Protection and Digital Information Bill that critics say is likely to further reduce UK residents’ personal information rights.
In a subsequent statement, an ICO spokesperson said: “We continue to engage with Meta on its approach to data protection compliance in relation to the Threads app. Any organisation providing services from the US to UK data subjects must continue to follow the requirements of UK data protection law.”
A spokesperson for Meta referred The Ferret to comments from Rob Sherman, the vice president and deputy chief privacy officer for policy at Meta on the Threads platform, where he said: “We would have liked to offer Threads in the EU at the same time as other markets, and the app does meet GDPR requirements today.
“But building this offering against the backdrop of other regulatory requirements that have not yet been clarified would potentially take a lot longer, and in the face of this uncertainty, we prioritised offering this new product to as many people as possible.”
Independent analytics firm Similarweb say engagement with the app following its launch subsequently dropped by 85 per cent one month after it was launched.