Kakao Talk Data Changes Enrage Netizens — But Is It Much Ado About Nothing?

Mega-popular messenger service Kakao Talk recently implemented changes to its data collection policies. And in true Google+ style, they told people unwilling to sign up that they could take their custom elsewhere.

In its announcement last week, Kakao Talk — used by some 18 million people in Korea and another 4 million or so worldwide — said that as well as collecting the user’s phone number, third-party phone numbers stored on the phone, the device’s serial number and info on legal guardians of users aged 14 or under, the company would now require users to submit their email address, too. All this is in addition to users’ Kakao Talk name and ID, their photo, the times they used Kakao Talk and all the services they accessed when they did so.

According to the Daum story, Kakao Talk said that anyone declining the new terms would no longer be able to use the service. To make sure nobody missed the point, Kakao Talk went on to say that refuseniks would have all their data deleted from Kakao, and they would thenceforth be unable to chat with their friends on the service.

Unsurprisingly, Kakao Talk’s abrupt tone endeared them to no one. In a sentiment widely echoed on Twitter, 28-year-old Han Mo fumed:

SK Comms recently leaked personal information, so when Kakao Talk insists on gathering similar data against such a sensitive backdrop, it’s clearly a problem. Above all, just like the big drawback they’d suffer if they deleted my account, I’ve decided to respond to this appalling news by leaving Kakao Talk.

This is not the first time Kakao has attempted to gather user info in a rather peremptory fashion. Last October, according to the Daum piece, the company quietly changed its policy in order to collect real names, ID numbers and email addresses from members who agreed to disclose this information. Such was the outcry that Kakao boss Lee Jae-beom felt compelled to issue an official apology on the company’s blog.

However, writing on his blog Inside Social Web, the ever insightful Kim Taehyun¬†questioned whether Kakao Talk’s sins were more of presentation than substance. (Full disclosure: Kim is a partner of TMN, of which Nanoomi.net is also a part. I’m a sometime contributor to Nanoomi.)

Citing previous Kakao Talk guidelines on data gathering (which you can see on his blog), Kim says that for all the bellyaching on Twitter, most of the “changes” have in fact been in place since at least last October. The one key alteration, he says, is the email requirement, which is intended as a means of verifying users’ identity. Kim says that Kakao Talk is pushing ahead with new services aimed at competing with top players in the industry, and email addresses are apparently an essential part of this.

In the worldview of developers, Kim continues, email addresses are a very basic element of online services, and so Kakao Talk’s staff no doubt believed their “request” would cause scarcely a ripple of protest. This is especially true given that Naver and Daum — Korea’s portal giants and operators of key Kakao competitors Naver Talk and My People — require users to submit both their real names and their ID numbers.

In addition, according to Kim’s analysis, Kakao Talk’s data gathering and privacy policies are broadly similar to those of US messenger service What’s App?:

So, why did Kakao’s comparatively innocuous request cause such a firestorm?

To Kim, Kakao Talk were simply guilty of dreadful PR. Instances abound of cack-handed efforts by the likes of Facebook and Google to alter privacy rules without anticipating the response, with some mess-ups caused by a deeply held belief that the company was actually doing users a favour. In a podcast interview I heard recently, Douglas Edwards, Google’s “employee No. 59,” said that when the company was working on its ill-starred Buzz service, Google’s engineers really believed that they were helping users out by automatically connecting them with everyone from their email archive. How, they figured, could anyone possibly object to such a convenient, time-saving initiative?

Korea has seen¬†its share of privacy blunders, so I could certainly believe that Kakao’s move was born of inexperience rather than more nefarious motives. If anyone disagrees, please feel free to leave your thoughts below.

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