WhatsApp Sues India Govt, Says New Media Rules Mean End To Privacy
May 26, 2021
June 7, 2021
Forget everything you’ve read recently about WhatsApp, Facebook, data sharing, the forced change of terms and now the backtrack. None of that matters anymore—not in of itself. Something much more important has become clear, something that has huge implications for Facebook’s control of WhatsApp and its 2 billion users worldwide.
The unfortunate reality for Facebook is that the forced change was actually not that big a deal—it’s why the PR blitz mounted to rectify the mess had a tone of surprise at the strength of feeling. But it tapped into some very deep-seated fears as to Facebook’s motives for WhatsApp, into the awkwardness of its ownership of an ostensibly private and secure messenger and into the pivotal role WhatsApp plays globally.
That said, as backtracks go, this one was a major surprise. Having marched those 2 billion users up a Facebook-shaped hill, WhatsApp suddenly changed its mind. The “largest digital migration in human history” ended, just like that. No, WhatsApp said, you don’t have to accept these new terms, after all. We won’t block your accounts.
Facebook will likely regret the first six months of 2021. Not because it had to retreat in the face of mounting regulatory resistance, but because it is now boxed in. Whatever monetization schemes were on the WhatsApp whiteboard will need to be revisited. But there’s a deeper reality check here as well—a seminal but as yet unasked question: Has WhatsApp become too much of a utility, too much of a quasi-global mobile network operator, to remain unregulated in Facebook’s hands?
As such, the retreat is critical for WhatsApp users, but—just as with the original story—not for the obvious, short-term reasons. Yes, it’s good that users won’t lose their accounts. But, realistically, the change of terms was more a bad PR exercise than a bad privacy issue. The new terms were fairly benign. The principle, though, that Facebook was starting to encroach further into the WhatsApp enclave, was the real danger.
Similarly, the real story of the retreat is not the obvious short-term let-off for however many millions of users have yet to click “accept.” In truth, it’s a very loud, very clear message that Facebook can only push so far. The regulatory environment has changed. Backlashes in huge markets like India and Brazil, as well as Germany’s legal ban and the likelihood of further European action was the more probable reason for the change of heart than a pragmatic “most have accepted anyway” concession.
“Given recent discussions with authorities and privacy experts,” WhatsApp said, “we want to make clear that we currently have no plans to limit how WhatsApp works for those who have not yet accepted the update... We will continue to remind users about the update as well as when people choose to use relevant optional features.”
But forget about this update—it’s irrelevant. It was never about the specifics of the changed terms. It was a wake-up call, a reminder that the world’s largest secure messenger is owned by the world’s hungriest data harvester. Wait, what! WhatsApp wants to share more data with Facebook! You mean it does some already?
The specter of regulation continues to hang over Facebook and its Big Tech rivals, but this has raised a different regulatory question: At what point does a privately held communication platform become a utility. Social media can be turned on or off with little consequence. But replacing regulated mobile networks with a multinational “over the top” that is used by almost everyone is a different deal.
WhatsApp’s biggest victory—the reason it’s now on almost all our phones—was its displacement of SMS as the world’s most popular, most ubiquitous, messaging tool. The nearest equivalent is Apple’s iMessage in some markets, especially the U.S. But iMessage isn’t a separate platform from core, regulated messaging. And, more to the point, it’s owned by a product giant not a data-based advertising giant.
WhatsApp’s numbers are interesting. While its penetration in Europe is strong, in the developing world it’s staggering. In Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Argentina, Malaysia, Colombia and Brazil it has secured more than 90% of total adult internet users. In most countries, WhatsApp is now the market leader. Think that through when next reading about WhatsApp’s shift into payments and shopping.
Arguably, WhatsApp has now stitched itself into the fabric of society the world over, more even that its parent, it has become a core enable to daily lives. If Facebook goes down for a few hours, it’s manageable. If WhatsApp goes down, people are no longer communicating. More so than iMessage, that fails over to SMS, there is no backup. And, again unlike iMessage and other messaging platforms, the volume of calls placed over WhatsApp has also now catapulted it to quasi-carrier status.
The attempt to force a change of terms “is further proof that Facebook is abusing its dominant market power,” Public Citizen’s Burcu Kilic tells me. “Our campaign called upon regulators worldwide to ‘Stop Facebook and Save WhatsApp'... Regulators in Turkey, India, South Africa, Brazil, Germany, and Colombia heard our call. Under pressure, Facebook backed down.” And it’s this step-up in regulator awareness, especially in high-penetration markets like India, Colombia and Brazil, that is critical.
Ever since that 2014 acquisition, there’s been a fear that Facebook will somehow exploit and ruin WhatsApp, damaging the simple messenger beyond repair. And it was fear that this was somehow the beginning of the end that fueled the more vocal of those protesting this year, as if the inevitable had finally come true.
But Facebook has in effect had its wrist slapped, and while it has likely secured the desired change of terms from a vast number of its users, it’s clear that encroaching further on user privacy will not be easily achieved. The best protector of WhatsApp is not Facebook, it is regulators and lawmakers the world over.
And so, to the stark irony here. For it is many of those same lawmakers that say they want to see WhatsApp’s security weakened, its fabled encryption breached to enable investigators to tap into the dangerous content and individuals that hide behind that shield. Protecting user privacy on one hand, seeking to compromise it on the other.
“People care about the privacy of their messages, and of messaging, and we agree with that.” WhatsApp’s boss Will Cathcart said earlier this year, mid-backlash. “It’s why we fought so hard to bring end-to-end encryption all around the world, and defend it all around the world, at times, with skepticism from governments, or people who are opposed to that level of security saying: ‘Well, do people really care about the privacy of this stuff?’ Yes, people absolutely care about the privacy of this stuff.”
From WhatsApp’s perspective, it would be a disaster if it were to see that security weakened. That has been its best, perhaps only defense against the Facebook backlash. It has gone all-in, so to speak, on the absolute need for such security to prevent users’ content form being monitored and intercepted.
And so, it’s no surprise that in an interview with WhatsApp beta blogger WABetaInfo this week, Cathcart and Mark Zuckerberg promoted the security enhancements coming to WhatsApp—disappearing mode and view once, which “will make WhatsApp even more private and secure,” further cementing its differences to Facebook.
Facebook itself, though, is more conflicted. Its stated desire to extend that encryption to its other messaging giants—Messenger and Instagram—has been met with strong resistance from those lawmakers, and it will struggle to justify any weakening of its monitoring for child endangerment or other abuses on its platform, albeit individuals already use secret and disappearing messaging to better hide their activities.
All these debates will play out over the next year. And, ultimately, what we will likely find is that WhatsApp’s differences to Messenger and Instagram become ever clearer. It’s not an extension of Facebook to be used as a commercial tool. It’s a utility. A vast and unique communications network that has become an established part of the global mobile ecosystem and can’t be broken for commercial imperatives.
Perhaps the ultimate take-away from this year is that the case for divesting WhatsApp out from Facebook has never been stronger. It’s not tighter integration it needs with its stablemates, it’s more entrenched independence, more ring-fencing, the formal or informal establishment of a special status that cements its global role.
As other parts of Facebook’s avaricious data-driven business model come under attack, from Apple, from regulators, from the privacy lobby, its inability to do as it pleases with WhatsApp is essentially because it is now a victim of WhatsApp’s success. The truth is that huge numbers of WhatsApp users the world over would welcome its independence—it’s hard to see the user benefit in its Facebook ownership.
“This is only the first step,” Public Citizen’s Kilic warns in the aftermath of Facebook’s backtrack. This is hard-won ground, she tells me, and they have no plans to retreat. “We must continue to hold Facebook to account: The globe’s communication platform has become critical infrastructure worldwide. Regulators worldwide have recognized this and have shown that they are ready to finally take much-needed action.”
Remember, despite the accelerated growth of Signal and Telegram, many politicians, journalists, lawyers, dissidents rely on those utility WhatsApp groups to conduct their affairs. Facebook’s climbdown didn’t generate the headlines it deserved, not because a critical short-term issue had been averted, but because WhatsApp users now know that there’s a level of safeguard for their messenger that they were unaware existed.
Facebook now also knows the same. You have a hugely valuable asset on your hands, it has been told, but tread carefully.
Source: News Break
Image Source: Getty Images
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