Facebook’s 1.2bn strong WhatsApp service likely to be the centre of the next big privacy debacle


There’s a profound irony that one of the people leading the #DeleteFacebook charge is Brian Acton, the co-founder of WhatsApp, which was bought by Facebook for $22bn.

If you think the amount (of which Acton received $3bn in 2014) was eye-watering, last month’s tweet by Acton – “It is time. #deletefacebook” – must rank as one of the snidest from a former founder.

Now with a $7bn fortune, Acton is the 76th richest person in America, according to Forbes. He has invested $50m of that in the encrypted messaging app Signal. It’s considered by many – including NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden – the most secure.

Buying WhatsApp was a smart play by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who realised the youth were deserting Facebook in favour of messaging apps and the picture-sharing Instagram; whose founders must be chiding that they sold for a mere $1bn.

Now with 1.2bn users, WhatsApp is a global messaging giant in its own right. And it likely to be one of the next nexus points in Facebook’s ongoing privacy saga that has exploded with the Cambridge Analytica debacle.

Facebook needs to make money from its service and appears to be matching data from WhatsApp to boost its profile of its users.

Recently, I realised that WhatsApp has become my default communication tool. If you want to contact anyone these days, the chances are very high they are on WhatsApp. Whether they use an Android device or iPhone, in whatever country in the world, WhatsApp has become the very embodiment of the network effect – a bit like its parent company Facebook. Everyone who is online, if they can, uses Facebook and WhatsApp.

But, as we’ve become increasingly aware, Facebook is open to abuse and exploitation, as Cambridge Analytica demonstrated. And WhatsApp has the same cavalier attitude towards privacy that its parent company does. It has been fined multiple times by the European Union and several of its countries for numerous instances of what Zuckerberg euphemistically called a “breach of trust” about Cambridge Analytica.

Last May Facebook was fined €110m for giving misleading information about its takeover in 2014, when it said it wouldn’t be able to match WhatsApp users with those on Facebook. But it promptly did that. Sound familiar?

In the same month the French data protection watchdog CNIL fined Facebook  €150,000 for “several breaches of the French Data Protection Act”. It “observed that Facebook proceeded to a massive compilation of personal data of Internet users in order to display targeted advertising…. Facebook collected data on browsing activity of internet users on third-party websites, via the ‘datr’ cookie, without their knowledge”. Sound familiar?

Last October a group of European data regulators (known as the Article 29 Working Party) warned Facebook that the “information presented to users was seriously deficient as a means to inform their consent” and was concerned that WhatsApp gave its users “a ‘take it or leave it’ approach” to either accept the terms or stop using it. Sound familiar?

As we’ve discovered, Facebook pushes the privacy envelope. It’s a hop-skip-and-a-jump to see Facebook abusing its dominant position in social media (2.2bn users) with its dominant position in mobile messaging (WhatsApp has 1.2bn monthly active users), if it hasn’t already. Sound familiar?

This column first appeared in Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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