Regulars’ table, conference call or live podcast 2.0: In recent weeks, the new mobile app “Clubhouse” has triggered a real hype. But when it comes to data protection, the app still has some weaknesses and risks. What’s the story with this new platform? Is it safe to use? Can it also be used for business? Here are the most important answers to the SoMe hype of the hour.
What is Clubhouse?
Clubhouse is an audio-only mobile app that lets you listen to conversations like a live podcast or actively participate in discussions. There is no text, video, likes or comments at all. This hybrid of social network and messenger can be compared to a virtual online conference, where some have a mic and most just listen.
Operators Alpha Exploration themselves call it “drop-in audio chat” and describe Clubhouse as “a new kind of social service based on voice that allows people anywhere in the world to talk, tell stories, develop ideas, deepen friendships, and meet interesting new people.”
Where did the app come from?
Clubhouse launched in April 2020 and triggered a real “hype” in the U.S. at the beginning of the pandemic, comparable to that for WhatsApp or Snapchat in their early days. The first 1,500 members included stars such as rapper Drake, Paris Hilton and Oprah Winfrey.
The app is published by the US company Alpha Exploration. Behind it are the two founders and managing directors Paul Davison and Rohan Seth. Venture capitalist Andreessen Horowitz, which also invested early in Airbnb, Facebook, Instagram, Lyft and Twitter, financed the startup with twelve million dollars in May last year. After that, the young company was suddenly worth $100 million.
How does Clubhouse work?
To join Clubhouse, you first need to download the drop-in audio app from the Apple store. Additionally, an invitation by an already registered user is required. This “invite” works via phone number.
The platform consists of communities and chat rooms on specific topics, which users can switch back and forth between and also create themselves – privately or publicly. As a host, you can specify which members are allowed to speak, raise their hands, and which are only allowed to listen. People, clubs and communities can be found via the app’s search function. The clubs are assigned to categories and topics, from which you can select up to five during registration.
Who is speaking? And about what?
Since the marketing concept, at least in the start-up phase, is based on exclusivity (access by invitation only) and a restricted user group (only for users of iOS devices), the range of people and topics is still very manageable. At the moment, it’s mainly artists, media professionals and politicians who are “early adopters” – in other words, people who are already broadcasting on all the other SoMe channels.
Luisa Neubauer talks about climate protection, Christian Lindner about the FDP and Joko Winterscheid about himself. You can even listen to a journalist eating noodles. Topics such as foundations, start-ups or real estate currently still predominate. But there are also rooms for young female journalists, fans of the TV format “Dschungelcamp” or the NBA.
Is that interesting for companies?
Clubhouse is currently not recommended as a service channel for companies or for paid services. The app is still too new for that, and too many data protection requirements have not yet been met. Business use of Clubhouse is currently prohibited anyway. The term “commercial use” is not specified further, while “personal use” is permitted. So there is a gray area, e.g. when professional conversations, topic sessions and discussions take place, recruiters are looking for new employees or conversations are only offered against payment. Second, the app is only available to iOS/ Apple users. That’s only 20 percent of all smartphone users.
Where are the risks and dangers?
From a data protection perspective, Clubhouse is not without risk:
App wants access to the entire address book – and existing social media profiles.
Anyone who wants to use Clubhouse should give the app access to their iPhone’s address book. Without this access, no friends can be invited. Interested parties should carefully consider whether access to the app is worth this delicate data sharing, which also affects other, uninvolved contacts. New users can only be added if their mobile number is provided. Even when signing up via a social media account, the provider reserves access to followers and friend lists. European data protectors have already criticized this with WhatsApp.
Admittedly, there are also functional reasons for the access, as it establishes the connection between users. However, without consent and with the creation of shadow profiles, this is extremely questionable.
The account can only be deleted by e-mail: The fact that Clubhouse apparently does not attach much importance to data protection is also shown by the fact that the app does not even offer users an option built directly into the platform to have their own data deleted again. Anyone who wants to get rid of their account has to write an e-mail.
The conversations in a room are recorded: According to the developers, the recording is intended to help track possible violations of the terms and conditions.
App violates the GDPR: According to many experts, Clubhouse’s data protection concept violates the European General Data Protection Regulation (DSGVO). This cannot be punished: the US company Alpha Exploration does not have a branch in the European Union.
Clubhouse is not immune to hate speech either: Hate speech and harassment in the individual rooms is possible and does happen. Even invited guests can misbehave. The operator of the room itself has little to no ability to intervene in discussions in a moderating capacity. Until recently, it was not possible to report grievances directly. However, this situation is being actively counteracted by setting up separate community guidelines and a new reporting function.
“Users should look into the privacy policies and weigh the risk of whether sharing data is worth using the app.”
Christof Stein, press spokesman for the Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information (BfDI).
I wonder if the Bavarian popular comedian Karl Valentin would have become a Clubhouse member 100 years ago. He said even then, “Everything has already been said – just not yet by everyone.” That may help keep your own FOMO (Fear of Missing out) in check.
Read here about the legal aspects to consider when using Clubhouse app. Data protection expert Dr. Thomas Schwenke has summarized the GDPR violations and risks.