The WhatsApp Situation

January 12, 2021 by Aaruni Kaushik


This post is a reprint of my post inspired by WhatsApp’s updated Terms of Service on 4th Jaunary 2020


tl;dr

Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 claiming that the acquisition is out of ambitions leading to the the improvement of the whole web, and promising that WhatsApp will continue to function independently of Facebook and will never share user data with Facebook. (A lie). In 2017, Acton quit Facebook citing disputes over privacy and monetization of WhatsApp. He went on to create Signal, a direct competitor to WhatsApp. (Red flag). In 2018, Koum announced his exit from Facebook over disputes over Facebook’s attempts to weaken the encryption employed by WhatsApp. (Red flag). Facebook is now operating WhatsApp in a direction completely divorced from the principles WhatsApp was founded on, simply exploiting the mindshare people have for the brand WhatsApp.


What is WhatsApp

WhatsApp is an IM application currently owned by Facebook. It is named to sound like “what’s up?”. It was created back in 2009 by Brian Acton and Jan Koum, both former employees of Yahoo. It was initially available only on Apple’s iOS platform, with support for Android being added in mid 2010.

WhatsApp exploded in popularity in India around 2012, when I was in 10th grade. This was around the time where almost everyone started getting an android smartphone, and a free replacement for ye olde SMS was an appealing concept for the masses. It attacked a market with no competition, and naturally, won. At this point in time, I don’t believe WhatsApp was abusive towards privacy. It was just better SMS, and quickly became the choice for IM for the average Joe.

Telegram and user inertia

Only an year later, in August 2013, Telegram was launched, and while being far superior in almost every way to WhatsApp, is still seen as a second choice simply because of user inertia. People did not want to put in the effort to migrate from something which is “good enough” to something which is much better. This is a fact without judgement. This is also what lead to the evolution of WhatsApp from a not-evil mediocre service to an absolutely evil platform whose primary purpose is to exploit user data for profit.

Acquisition by Facebook

In February 2014, Facebook acquired WhatsApp for nearly 22 billion US dollars. So far, this is Facebook’s costliest acquisition (For reference, Facebook acquired Occulus VR for only 2 billion USD). “The independence and protection of its users’ data is a core tenet of WhatsApp” was claimed by the owners of WhatsApp at the time of the merger. At the time, it was iterated many times by Mark Zuckerburg that WhatsApp would continue to operate independently from Facebook.

Trouble in Paradise

In September 2017, Brian Acton quit Facebook over disputes regarding the monetization of WhatsApp. He also noted that he was “coached by Facebook executives to mislead European regulators regarding Facebook’s intention to merge Facebook and WhatsApp user data”. Acton then went on to found the Signal Foundation, the organization behind the secure messaging application Signal. A product which today directly competes against WhatsApp.

A few months later in April 2018, Jan Koum announced that he was quitting Facebook over disputes and concerns “over the popular messaging service’s strategy and Facebook’s attempts to use its personal data and weaken its encryption”, according to people familiar with internal discussions.

In the time between then and now, it can be safely assumed that Facebook has been working tirelessly to leverage WhatsApp as a data collection tool for its nefarious schemes.

Which brings us to 4 January 2021, when WhatsApp most recently updated their privacy policy. Amusingly enough, the key updates page starts with the words “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA”. The new terms of use make it mandatory for you to consent WhatsApp sharing user data with Facebook, or have your account deleted. These terms directly contradict the promises made during the 2014 acquisition.

Moving away

Personally, I will not agree to the new terms of service, and thus, I will not be reachable via WhatsApp after 8 February 2021. I do not feel comfortable having whatever data WhatsApp collects being processed, used, and abused by a corporation who has gotten into scandal after scandal about mishandling user data, and whose primary concern is to make profits via data exploitation and targeted advertisements.

For now, I can be found on Telegram, and that is what I recommend for a short term replacement of WhatsApp, but in the future, I plan to completely migrate my IM needs to Matrix.


Links:
A list of nearly 100 major criticisms of Facebook’s operations
WhatsApp page on Wikipedia
Brian Acton on Wikipedia
Jan Koum on WikiPedia
Washington Post’s report on Acton’s leave from Facebook
CNBC On Koum’s leave from Facebook
A case study of Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp
WhatsApp updates its terms to include sharing user data with Facebook


Post written by Aaruni Kaushik

Aaruni is currently pursuing his master's course in mathematics at Technische Universität Kaiserslautern. An avid reader of trivia and a techno enthusiast in his spare time, he occasionally also writes on a variety of topics. His personal blog can be found here.

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