Clubhouse app: digital regulars' table or exclusive salon?

Regulars' table, telephone conference 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 is the deal 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. This hybrid of social network and messenger can be compared to a virtual online conference, where some have a microphone and most just listen.

The 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 does the app come from?

To join Clubhouse, you first need to download the drop-in audio app from the Apple store. In addition, an invitation from an already registered user is required. This "invite" works via telephone number.

The platform consists of communities and chat rooms on specific topics, between which users can switch back and forth and also create them themselves - privately or publicly. As a host, you can determine 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 choose up to five during registration.

Who is speaking there? 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 is 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 still predominate at the moment. 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 offers. 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 further specified; "personal use" is permitted. So there is a grey 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. Secondly, the app is only available for iOS/ Apple users. That is only 20 per cent 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 sensitive data sharing, which also affects other, uninvolved contacts. New users can only be added if their mobile phone number is provided. Even when signing up via a social media account, the provider reserves access to followers and friend lists. European data protectionists have already criticised 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 establishment of shadow profiles, this is extremely questionable.

  • Account can only be deleted by email: The fact that Clubhouse apparently attaches little importance to data protection is also shown by the fact that the app so far does not even offer users an option built directly into the platform to have their own data deleted again. If you want to get rid of your account, you have to write an email. 
  • The conversations in a room are recorded: According to the developers, the recording should help to track possible violations of the terms and conditions.
  • Non-transparent use of data: It is not clear from the rules how the collected data is actually used. According to its own privacy policy, the provider may even pass them on for advertising and marketing purposes - this is also legally questionable....
  • App violates the GDPR: According to many experts, Clubhouse's data protection concept violates the European 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: Hatespeech and harassment in the individual rooms is possible and does happen. Even invited guests can misbehave. The operator of the room itself can do little or nothing to moderate discussions. 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 data protection guidelines and weigh up 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 already said back then: "Everything has already been said - just not yet by everyone". Maybe that helps to keep your FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) under control.

Read here about the legal aspects to consider when using the Clubhouse app. Data protection expert Dr Thomas Schwenke has summarised the DSGVO violations and risks:


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