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WhatsApp row: Much ado about nothing; probing IT, information network


By Pramod Ranjan*
The world’s biggest messenger company, WhatsApp, is the midst of a big row. Before dwelling deeper into the issue, let us have an overview of what is being said in the matter.
On 4 January 2021, WhatsApp issued its new terms of service which said that henceforth the data of WhatsApp users would be shared with five companies associated with its parent outfit, Facebook, and that the services to users who do not consent to the new terms by February 9, would be disconnected.
The notice sent the world into a tizzy. The Indian educated class, which is growing increasingly protective of its privacy, came out with a quick and sharp reaction. And this was not unexpected.
As on February 2020, the number of WhatsApp users in the world had crossed two billion with Indians accounting for the highest number of its users. About 40 percent of Indians use this digital messenger.
As media took cognizance of the new development, WhatsApp groups started getting crammed with messages cautioning the people against the ‘new’ dangers of using WhatsApp and advising them to switch to Signal or Telegram – two other messenger apps.
These WhatsApp messages, which were based on media reports, dwelt on how Signal is the ‘best’ and ‘Telegram’ ‘good enough’ for protecting the privacy of our data. But, if we would continue to use WhatsApp, our privacy, our bank accounts and many other things would be in peril. It was also said that WhatsApp and other companies would mint money by selling our data to other private companies. The fact is that changes made by WhatsApp in its terms of service did not warrant such a great alarm. The fact is that surveillance of the people by Tech Giants is something that has been happening for years. It cannot be countered by merely switching from one app to another. A broad and comprehensive struggle would be needed for that. It is true that the terms of service of Signal regarding privacy of data are better than that of WhasApp and we can register a symbolic protest by switching to Signal. However, we also need to understand how the processes which trap us in this web work and how some powers are interested in feeding incomplete and misleading information to us so that instead of waging a battle against the fundamental issues, we just become pawns in their mutual war.

Key to decoding news

Muktibodh, a leading Indian thinker of the 20th century, had provided a very useful key to understanding such issues. In an article on understanding literature, Muktibodh, who was a poet, story writer and critic, wrote: “To get to the real core of any literature, we should view it from different perspectives.” According to him, to begin with, we should see which forces are the creators of that literature. Next, we should see “Which inspirations and emotions have shaped its internal elements” and “which social forces have used or misused it?” We should also see, “Which mental processes of the common people have led to its development or destruction?”
Muktibodh was the pioneer of modernism in India. The touchstone propounded by him in the 20th century is valid even in these post-modernist times. Before imbibing and accepting a piece of news or information lobbed at us, we should first try to find out whether and to what extent it is new and who will benefit from it. Also, who has created it, what are the factors behind its spread and which forces are interested in its widest-possible dissemination. We should also try to find out whether they are trying to propel us in a particular direction. Are they trying to distract our attention from some fundamental issues? Let us use this key to understand what we are hearing about WhatsApp.

What has changed?

The fact is that there is no fundamental change in the policies of WhatsApp. WhatsApp has been compiling information about its users since 2014, when it became a part of Facebook. This includes all the photographs and phone numbers saved in our phones, the brand of our mobile, battery status, name of the Internet Service Provider, language, Internet Protocol (IP) Address, quality of Internet signals, identity of the user (which includes identifying the users who are using different services provided by Facebook using a common device or account), device location and many other sensitive facts and data. Since July 2020, in keeping with the updated terms of service, it also started seeing the details of the business transaction done on its platform. If anything has changed, it is only that it has announced that it would share these details with its parent company.
The fact is that Facebook has been presenting WhatsApp as an autonomous company just to circumvent certain laws. In some European countries, data privacy laws prescribe that a company can share data pertaining to its customers with another company only with the express permission of the customers.
The sum total of the implications of the ‘New Privacy Policy’ is only that Facebook is trying to ensure that it does not get into trouble with the law. It is another matter that things went horribly wrong for it. As parent company, Facebook already had access to WhatsApp data and was also using it. You must have noticed that even if you are using WhatsApp on your phone and Facebook on your PC, Facebook displays the names of the persons whose numbers are in your contact list as your possible friends. Clearly, Facebook knows whom you are talking to on phone, although it has been denying that it is so. At the time of writing these lines, Facebook had issued a clarification saying that WhatsApp does not share the contacts of the users with Facebook. This claim may be technically correct but by distilling the millions of bits and pieces of information about a person, it can easily discover what kind of other persons he must be associated with and what must be his beliefs and ideology. It can draw a fairly accurate personality profile of the person and know what his weaknesses are.
Clarification issued by WhatsApp after the eruption of the row
Additionally, it had been a common practice (one may even call it high-handedness) with these companies that whenever they issue news terms of service, they do not give any option to their customers. The customers cannot continue using their services if they choose to not to accept the new terms. They have to either accept the terms or stop using the service. There was nothing new in the WhatsApp’s recent move in this respect either.
That was why; when asked by British newspaper The Independent, a spokesperson for WhatsApp said “Privacy policy updates are common in the industry” . As the controversy snowballed, Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp services at Facebook, tried to do some damage control. In a series of tweets on 9 January, he said that the new updates are meant to bring transparency to business done through the platform and that it had not changed WhatsApp’s data sharing ‘practices’ with Facebook. He said that it does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world. He also said that “We’ve updated our policy to be transparent and to better describe optional people-to-business features. We wrote about it in October and this includes commerce on WhatsApp and the ability for people to message a business.”.
In his tweets, the WhatsApp chief emphasized that “With end-to-end encryption, we cannot see your private chats or calls and neither can Facebook. We’re (even today) committed to this technology and committed to defending it globally.” He laid great stress on the word ‘globally’. That was because WhatsApp had clearly stated that the new updates would not apply to the residents of America and Canada and this exclusion had raised eyebrows. From the very outset, Facebook has had different privacy policy for these two countries in order to comply with the local laws. This discriminatory practice warrants a separate discussion.
It is true that WhatsApp, at least officially, never read our messages and the new terms of service, too, did not allow it to do so. From time to time, however, it has been charged with reading our messages. But the new terms of service did not change that. The fact is that people tend to confuse collecting personal data with reading personal messages. That is not so. It is true that personal messages can be read and understood using artificial intelligence, which can be a bigger threat to our privacy, but even without that, the data compiled by these companies, is enough to allow them to draw up our personality profile. With time, we become saleable products for them.

Signal emerges as the winner

Although WhatsApp had not effected any significant change in its terms of service, the controversy came as a big jolt for it. ‘Signal’ and ‘Telegram’ were touted as alternatives to WhatsApp for the people of different countries, including India with Signal emerging as the winner. And this despite the fact that Telegram had much better features and the number of its users was much higher than Signal. Telegram also claimed that it does not collect the kind of data, which, the WhatsApp, it was charged, would begin collecting. There was no substantial difference between the privacy policies of Telegram and Signal, either.
Within a week of the eruption of the controversy, ‘Signal’ became the top-downloaded app on App Stores not only in India but also in Germany, France, Switzerland and many other countries – so much that it witnessed delays in verifications of telephone numbers of new accounts. However, the problem was sorted out soon. In just a week, Signal managed to outstrip WhatsApp downloads – at least for the time being.
In this context, it would be interesting for you to know that the creator of WhatsApp and Signal is the same person. His name is Brian Acton.
Brian Acton had build WhatsApp in 2009 in collaboration with his friend and colleague Jan Koum. The two friends had in mind a business model with protection of the privacy of the users as its USP. Their WhatsApp was supposed to be a digital messenger which neither read the messages of the users nor intended to make money by selling data on the likes and dislikes of the users to advertisers. This is what is called end-to-end encryption. In simple words, in this technology messages are secured with a lock, and only the recipient and the sender have the special key needed to unlock and read or hear them. No one can read, hear or see these messages when they are on their way.
Within a year of the launch of WhatsApp, Brian Acton and Jan Koum managed to win the confidence of their customers and their app became a big hit. In 2010, Google sought to buy WhatsApp but its founders turned down the offer.. But in 2014, they merged their company with Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. In return, they received four billion US dollars and according to Forbes magazine, 20 per cent share in Facebook. In total, the deal was worth 19 billion US dollars. Some time before this deal, WhatsApp was valued at just 1.5 billion US dollars. Thus, 19 billion US dollars was much higher than its estimated value. In addition, the founders got the backing of Mark Zuckerberg, the shiniest star of the Silicon Valley, which, they hoped, would open doors of opportunities for them.
But within three years, the dreams of Brian Acton ran aground. The agreement signed between Facebook and WhatsApp envisaged that by and large, the autonomy of WhatsApp would be maintained. However, Mark Zuckerberg gradually reduced WhatsApp to a subsidiary of Facebook. Zuckerberg’s team put up a monetization proposal before WhatsApp involving WhatsApp harvesting the data of its users. Brian opposed the idea and instead, suggested a cap on the number of messages that could be sent free through WhatsApp and imposing some charge on messages above the stipulated limit. He argued that selling data would deprive WhatsApp of its USP. However, his arguments fell on deaf ears and in 2017; he had to quit Facebook in humiliating circumstances. Not only Facebook, he had to bid farewell to his brainchild, the WhatsApp, too. And that too at a time when WhatsApp was coming of age. In an interview with Forbes magazine, Acton sharing his pain, said that his decision to quit Facebook cost him 85 million US dollars but given his ideals and also because he was bound by the legal agreement with Zuckerberg, he really had little choice.
This idealistic entrepreneur, who believes in leading a simple life, had said that he repented his decision to merge WhatsApp with Facebook. He said, “At the end of the day, I sold my company. I sold my users’ privacy to a larger benefit. I made a choice and a compromise. And I live with that every day.” 
After quitting Facebook, in February 2019, Brian Acton launched the Signal app. It is owned by a non-profit ‘Signal Foundation’, which depends on donations by philanthropists. Protecting the privacy of the users is one of its official objectives.
In March 2018, as details of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, involving Facebook, went public, Acton posted a tweet that quickly went viral, sent the Silicon Valley into a tizzy and was seen as an act of vengeance on his part. In his single-line Tweet, he wrote – “It is time. #deletefacebook”. In the language of the Leftist Indian students, Acton was saying: “Facebook dhokha hai, dhakka maro mauka hai” (Facebook is a cheat; now is the time to give it a push).”
At that time, Tesla CEO Elon Musk (who at the time of the writing of this article was the richest man in the world according to the Forbes Magazine), reacting to the tweet virtually supported Acton.
Interestingly, the tweet on 21 March 2018 was the last from Acton’s account to date. He hasn’t tweeted a word since then. Why this long silence? Is Acton under some kind of pressure or as has he, like the Indian historical character, Kautilya, taken a vow that he would not tie his hair till the ruin of a certain person?
Be that as it may, it is clear that there are many not-so-apparent links between WhatsApp, which has lost and Signal, which has gained from the row over the terms of service of WhatsApp. These links can hardly be ignored. The owners of the two apps, Mark Zuckerberg and Brian Acton, are on bitter terms, both professionally and personally. For the past four years, Brian was being consumed by a fire within. Currently, we have no way of finding out whether Brian had any role in fuelling the controversy regarding WhatsApp. Leaving this missing link in the story aside, let us now try to find out who played what role in making the new terms of service of WhatsApp a global talking point.

Anonymously-owned website, whistle blower and the richest man

WhatsApp chief Will Cathcart’s tweet offering an explanation on the change in terms of service said that WhatsApp had informed the users about the change in October itself and the message can still be seen on its blogpost dated October 22, 2020.xix But traditional journalism does not believe in delving so deep into issues. World over, the news media (including newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and now websites) normally depend on readymade news, provided by an interested party.
The news about the changes in WhatsApp’s terms of service was broken by a website called Wabetainfo on 2 December 2020. It was from this website that news agencies and media institutions picked this news and it was widely published. Now, as is clear from the name of the website, it has been created to provide information about Beta (experimental) versions of WhatsApp. It mainly publishes stories about WhatsApp. It is a good source of information for journalists looking after technology beat. It provides them ready-to-publish stories without lifting a finger. Most of the stories published over the past several years regarding new features on WhatsApp were sourced from this website. But this website had no business model of its own and so it is difficult to pinpoint the source of its funding as also who runs it and for what purpose. In short, it is a mysterious website. The website says that it was founded on 15 February 2016. Regarding “Who is behind WABetaInfo?” the website says that “The identity of WABetaInfo is private to keep his life quiet.”
Besides the anonymous owner of WABetaInfo, those who took great interest in spreading this news were much talked-about American whistleblower Edward Snowden and the world’s richest man Elon Musk. Both of them appealed to the people to chuck WhatsApp and use Signal instead. Their appeal was widely reported in media.
Edward Snowden’s claim to popularity lies in leaking classified documents from America’s National Security Agency (NSA). The documents, that were made public in 2013, exposed NSA’s illegal surveillance of American people. He is facing trial in the US and is currently living in Russia as a refugee. He is an old critic of the policies of Facebook. He believes that as far as surveillance goes, tech companies are more intrusive and dangerous that the NSA. He considers Facebook and Marc Zuckerberg as the most dangerous of the lot. He had told an interviewer that in the world of technology, “There is a class led by Mark Zuckerberg that is moving toward the maximization of technological power and influence that can be applied to society because they believe they can profit by it or, rightly or wrongly, they can better use the influence that their systems provide to direct the world into a better direction.”
In 2020 came another piece of news about Snowden. American President Donald Trump, known for taking on tech companies but notorious for his intemperate utterances and racist leanings, hinted that Snowden might return to the US and may be granted a pardon He also had his own reasons.
The companies owned by Elon Musk are into Artificial Intelligence and self-driving vehicles but a major part of his business is related to space travel. His dream is that after the earth becomes inhabitable; his company SpaceX would build settlements for humans and other denizens of the earth on various planets of our solar system.
Musk has been opposing Facebook for quite some time now. Over the last couple of years, he has tweeted on numerous occasions, asking his followers to stop using Facebook. After the row over WhatsApp’s privacy policy, Musk, in his tweet had urged the people to use Signal. Not only that, on being asked by one of his followers, he revealed that he had donated money to Signal last year and intends to donate bigger amounts in the future.

What should we do?

Whether it is Mark Zuckerberg and his team, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, somewhat smaller players like Brain Acton, the anonymous owner of WABetaInfo or American whistleblower Edward Snowden – they all have one thing in common. They all are trying to build a new world which would be a capitalist chessboard with you and I as pawns. They may be each other’s rivals but their ultimate objectives are the same. They are not believers in communal and egalitarian political actions. They, in fact, in a sense, believe in Nietzsche’s principle which wants to give only the capable and the strong the right to live. Some of them are fighting for fulfilling their own dreams. Some of them are pawns of others. But they are not fighting for the people inhabiting this earth. They do not want to accept this world as it is – with its people, their dignity and their potential. When their rivals start riding roughshod over them or when they start become victims of the system they have created, they begin seeking the support of the people.
This rather detailed exposition of the various aspects of the WhatsApp row is to try to make us all capable to see the invisible links between them. And then we would discover that we figure nowhere in their scheme of things. These multi-billionaires have their own visions of the “new world. One of them wants to build a world in which incessant surveillance would turn the people into zombies. Another is dreaming of building an extra-terrestrial home for the humans. Still others, rolling in wealth, want to build different heavens for themselves. But one thing is certain. In each of these worlds, we would only be puppets in blood and flesh. We should bring their savage and vulgar dreams within the purview of popular surveillance. And we should make every effort to see the heavens they are promising for what they really are – a big sham.

*Journalist and researcher, Pramod Ranjan is interested in studying the working of media organizations, philosophy of knowledge and analysis of subaltern aspect of literature and philosophy. Currently, Ranjan is an assistant professor in Rabindranath Tagore School of Languages and Cultural Studies of Assam University.This article (Originally written in Hindi) is an adaptation of his weekly column ‘Nai Dunia’ published by Delhi-based web portal ‘Jan Jwar’

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