Over the last week, nearly 2 billion people around the world who use WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned instant messaging service, were greeted with a giant pop-up when they launched the app.
Unless people agree to these new terms, they will be locked out of WhatsApp on Feb. 8.
Online, the backlash was swift. “Use Signal,” tweeted Tesla CEO Elon Musk to his 42 million followers, referring to the open source WhatsApp alternative popular with people who deal with sensitive information like journalists and activists. “I use [Signal] every day and I’m not dead yet,” tweeted American whistleblower Edward Snowden. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s media office and the country’s defense ministry announced that they were dropping WhatsApp after the policy changes, and opened a probe into the move.
Signal became the top free app on both Google and Apple’s app stores in most countries around the world. More than 8,800,000 people downloaded Signal on iPhones and Android phones in the week of Jan. 4, compared to just 246,000 people the week before, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower. Telegram, another WhatsApp alternative, said on Tuesday that more than 25 million people had joined in the last 72 hours.
“I was concerned about my privacy,” J. Paul, a marketing professional from Mumbai who only wanted to be identified by the initial of his first name, told BuzzFeed News. “Facebook monetizes its products in ways that are invasive for users.”
Besides Facebook itself, WhatsApp is Facebook’s largest and most popular service. In markets like Brazil and India, the app is the default way of communication for hundreds of millions of people. But so far, Facebook, which paid $22 billion to acquire it in 2014, has kept it largely independent and hasn’t tried to make money off of it. Now, that’s changing.
“We remain committed to the privacy and security of people’s private messages,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, and offered a link to a page that the company put up earlier this week explaining the new policy. “The best way to sustain end-to-end encryption for the long run is to have a business model that protects people's private communication.”
The page says that WhatsApp thinks messaging with businesses is different than messaging with friends and family, and breaks down data that the company might share with Facebook in the future.
“If you spent $22 billion acquiring something, sooner or later, shareholders want you to monetize that asset,” Mishi Choudhary, a technology lawyer and online civil liberties activist based in New York, told BuzzFeed News.
WhatsApp, started by two former Yahoo employees, Jan Koum and Brian Acton, originally charged people a dollar a year. After Facebook made the app free to use, growth exploded. For the first few years after it purchased the app in 2014, Facebook largely left WhatsApp alone. But in 2018, it launched WhatsApp Business, which let businesses use WhatsApp to communicate with customers. For the first time, Facebook wanted WhatsApp to start generating revenue.
Over the last year, WhatsApp has added more business-facing features, such as flight tickets and shopping receipts, catalogs, and payments. WhatsApp said there are more than 50 million businesses on the platform, and more than 175 million people message a business on the app each day.
“I don’t trust Facebook,” Paul said. He recently deactivated his Facebook account, although he still uses Instagram and WhatsApp. “I am required to be on it, but I do not trust it,” he said.
Trust in WhatsApp has eroded since Facebook bought it. Koum defended selling the app to Facebook in a 2014 blog post, stating that the company wasn’t interested in people’s personal data. “If partnering with Facebook meant that we had to change our values, we wouldn’t have done it,” he wrote. Two years later, however, WhatsApp announced that it would start sharing some data, including phone numbers and the last time people used the service with Facebook — a move for which the European Union fined it 110 million euros.
In response, Facebook is going on a charm offensive. In India, which is the company’s largest market with more than 400 million users, the company splashed the front pages of major national newspapers with full-page ads clarifying that it couldn't see people’s private messages or listen to their calls. “Respect for your privacy is coded into our DNA,” WhatsApp’s ad said, echoing a line from Koum’s 2014 blog post.
Top Facebook executives, like the head of Instagram and Facebook’s head of virtual reality, have tweeted in support of the app.
“It’s important for us to be clear this update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook,” he wrote. “It does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world.”
Cathcart did not respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Despite the outcry, ditching WhatsApp in countries like India could be hard. Paul, the marketing professional from Mumbai, said he’d keep using the app until he has urged everyone he knows to move to Signal.
“It’s not an easy sell,” he said, “because of how convenient WhatsApp is.”