Why WhatsApp may have to raise its age restriction in South Africa

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WhatsApp is primed to ban under-16s from its messaging platform in the European Union.

At present anyone who is 13-years-old can use the messaging service, but WhatsApp is having to raise the age limit to bring it in line with requirements dictated by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into effect this May. WhatsApp says the age-restriction for other countries around the world will remain at 13-years-of-age.

Now, the reason this may be of some interest to local users is that The Protection Of Personal Information Act (POPI) will bring South Africa in line with international standards for the collection, recording, and storage of personal information – including the GDPR.

When POPI commences, WhatsApp may have to raise the age restriction to 18-years-of-age, as minors in SA wouldn’t be allowed to sign up to its platform without parental consent.

That having been said, the new EU age restriction issued by WhatsApp (and any possible age restriction issued for South Africa users) would likely appear in its Terms & Conditions, giving the service legal cover should someone be caught using it who is underage. It’s a kind of ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card that WhatsApp can play if anyone lodges a complaint.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this saga is the fact that WhatsApp has yet to reveal how it plans to verify the age of each new subscriber, which may have a huge bearing on how things play out. If all it involves is ticking a box and trusting the user, it’s unlikely the service’s subscriber base will drop. That having been said, if the EU insists on more stringent checks and balances, it may find itself in a catch-22 situation.

One of the reasons the GDPR (and POPI) was drawn up was to protect citizens’ data – particularly minors. If WhatsApp is forced to insist on stringent verification, it will inevitably have to collect more data. Believe us when we tell you regulators are watching this situation with interest. Local WhatsApp users should too.



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