Facebook sued by European regulators for breaching privacy, and it’s only getting worse


I’m not a big believer in New Year’s Resolutions. After years of trying to fulfil these improbable, sometimes impossible, behavioural change tasks, I – like everyone – gave up on this annual tradition.

But this year I have a goal, a resolution, if you will. I want to move way from WhatsApp – and to use Telegram.

As one of the largest messaging networks in the world – with over 1.5bn users – WhatsApp has become a convenient way to contact and communicate just about anyone.

But it is owned by Facebook – who have proved they are not able to store personal information without exploiting it, selling it, datamining it, etc, etc.

I just don’t trust them. And why should I trust them with my personal messaging?

I’ve had this itchy feeling for at least a year now, but I’ve resisted doing anything because WhatsApp is the path of least resistance for messaging. Everyone is on it. It’s convenient. And it’s very good software actually, with some handy features, especially for group communication.

It’s like smoking cigarettes. Everyone knows it’s bad for you, but it took decades of lung cancer and other illnesses to finally convince the world that cigarettes are evil.

WhatsApp is the new cigarette of the internet. We have to give it up.

Why am I being so paranoid? Because Facebook has shown – not only last year when it was rocked by innumerable privacy scandals – that it doesn’t hold our data sacred and is willing to share it with its advertisers to ultimately monetise us.

WhatsApp’s remaining cofounder Brian Acton left Facebook last year – foregoing a small fortune of $850m in earn out – and immediately afterwards adverts began appearing in the Stories section.

Despite assurances that it wouldn’t combine phone numbers from WhatsApp, Facebook still did that. Last December, WhatsApp was ordered to stop sharing data with Facebook by French privacy watchdog CNIL, while in 2016 regulators in Germany and the UK also ordered Facebook to stop collecting WhatsApp data. In 2017 the European Commission fined Facebook €110m or $122m for “providing incorrect or misleading information” by claiming it was unable to delink Facebook and WhatsApp profile when it could.

In December Facebook was sued by the attorney general of the District of Columbia (DC) in the United States for the Cambridge Analytica saga, and it’s unlikely there won’t be enormous consequences for its breaking of a 2011 agreement with the FTC to inform its users if there were data breaches in future, amongst other things.

As the saying goes: a leopard doesn’t change its spots.

It’s a useful way to understand Facebook, which like a big cat predator, is at the top of the food chain not just as the largest social network, but in terms of advertising and communication reach.

Late last year yet another damning New York Times expose revealed how Facebook gave unbelievable access to the big tech firms to help grow the social network. “Facebook also allowed Spotify, Netflix and the Royal Bank of Canada to read, write and delete users’ private messages,” it reported, despite them saying they never asked for such access.

Perhaps one of the biggest blows came when Walt Mossberg, the very first technology journalist and a legendary figure in tech circles, publicly abandoned Facebook “because my own values and the policies and actions of Facebook have diverged to the point where I’m no longer comfortable here”.

So what are the alternatives. The two best, and most secure, messaging apps are Telegram and Signal. I’ll be writing about them next week.

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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