WhatsApp vs. Facebook – Saving Your Soul

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

September 21, 2016

“Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need,” was a memorable line from the film, Fight Cluband was quoted by WhatsApp co-founder, Jan Koum, when explaining a few years ago why they wouldn’t sell ads.

It might well have been a refreshing feature of WhatsApp, the messaging app, to distinguish itself from the likes of Google and Facebook – to name just two ad-hounds. It also undoubtedly added to the appeal of the 2009 startup.

From the outset, Koum, was determined not to get involved in plucking users’ personal data without paying for it, and then polishing it and selling it to advertisers. But things have changed, and you may not like it.

For a while this model seemed to be working, for in just a year from Koum’s pronouncement in 2012, WhatsApp claimed 200 million active users worldwide, and had a valuation of $1.5 billion. Not gargantuan by Silicon Valley standards, but by no means shabby for a startup.  By the following year, in February 2014, its star had risen, and so had its appeal to the tech giants.

When Facebook came calling with a $19 billion buyout offer, it blew away WhatsApp. Facebook, the personal data-devouring “devil” didn’t come for its soul right away, but as we know, if you make a deal with the devil, you’re going to have to pay at some point.

But, in this instance, not right away. Rather than begin selling ads as many thought it would, WhatsApp admirably stuck to its principles and even went a step further. It proposed an end-to-end encryption scheme later in 2014, so that not even Facebook can read (and thereby monetize) its users’ messages. The mood of the anti-ad crowd was buoyed by this turn of events.

But this was soon to change, because why would the revenue-growing genius Mark Zuckerberg acquire a company he couldn’t monetize? Many waited for the other shoe to drop. And drop it did this August – the time had come, and the devil wanted his due.

The change in the terms and conditions and the privacy policy, which appeared in a recent blog post, is masterly for its deception. It informs everyone that it is going to “share” with Facebook its users’ phone numbers and details of the last time they signed on to WhatsApp.

Every user is asked to click “Agree” to this proposition. Theoretically, one could reverse this agreement if they could only wend their way through the legalese to find the relevant section of their settings.

Anyone with half a brain can see through this ploy. It has nothing to do with improving things for the user, and everything to do with Facebook cashing in on its investment in WhatsApp. Like using your WhatsApp phone number and personal account information is going to improve the Facebook ads or product experience! And just to hammer home the importance of the decision to opt-in, the language states,

If you tap ‘Don’t Share’, you won’t be able to change this in the future.

Those of you who are regular readers of mine may be aware that I am not a “techie”. No, that ship has already sailed. But those who are knowledgeable tell me that this is something of a default dodge,i.e., the default is employed to get you to do something you may not really want to do.

The Guardian refers to this as a way to ”Nudge Your Customers To Better Choices” -an implementation of the philosophy set out by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book Nudge: Improving  Decisions About Health ,Wealth, and Happiness. Never read it, but I may just pick it up!

How can you, a WhatsApp user on the horns of a dilemma, rescue yourself from this battle for your soul?  The article suggests you go, quick as you can as you don’t have oodles of time, to “Settings”, select “Account”, “Share my account info” and tap on “Don’t Share.” Hopefully, this will enable you to continue to enjoy the WhatsApp experience and the privacy you value without having to “dance with the devil.”

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