The WhatsApp Debate: To Surrender Privacy Or Switch App!
WhatsApp groups are buzzing with discussions on whether to continue there or switch to Telegram or Signal or even esoteric alternatives like Discord.
Some users have already posted saying that they will be leaving WhatsApp as they are not comfortable with their data being shared with Facebook.
If we examine the issue, there are three factors that are at play here.
Breach Of Faith
The most obvious one is privacy. There is quite a bit of indignation about this ultimatum by WhatsApp — how can it do this? It is being treated as almost a breach of faith by a tool that we had been happily using, comforted by the ever present messaging that all our chats are encrypted end to end, and no one can get access to whatever we send or receive. Of course, this trust took a little beating with the very public revelation of private WhatsApp chats during the recent case of the suicide by actor Sushant Singh Rajput but even so, chats continued nevertheless.
This time, however, it is a question of data being shared with Facebook. Now everyone knows this is a completely different animal, for the success of Facebook is completely driven by user data.
Facebook uses information such as posts liked, people on friend lists, those with whom there is greater interaction with, posts liked by friends, posts seen but not liked, time spent on a post and many other metrics to form a composite picture of who we are. In fact, some have argued that Facebook knows its users better than even their spouses!
This information is used by Facebook to show us a judicious mix of posts that it feels we would be interested in and advertisements of companies we are potential customers of. The objective being to keep us scrolling down for as long as possible, thereby generating revenue for itself.
While Facebook already had access to chats on its Facebook messenger, access to data from WhatsApp adds another dimension to the information that can be gleaned about its users. And this is the cause of the discomfort. While users were aware that their information was being used, this move by WhatsApp has for probably the first time caused them to reflect on whether their privacy is worth the pain caused by not using something that has become a deeply ingrained habit — if not an addiction like Facebook.
One other facet of this issue is the fact that most users feel their data is not of much value in any case, so even if WhatsApp shares some or all of it with Facebook, so be it. What is missed here is that while an individual’s data may be inconsequential, when such data is collated across entire populations, the potential for misuse is huge, and this is something that should be of concern, not to users but to policy makers.
The next issue is that of filthy lucre – money. Over the last decade, the start-up and venture capital driven ecosystem has brought what can be described as a loss driven business model. Unlike conventional businesses which seek to generate profits by selling a product or service at a price higher than the cost of making the product or providing the service, these new companies deliberately embraced losses with the objective of generating profits later on through the large number of loyal customers gathered through the loss making phase. Or, as companies like Google and Facebook did, by monetizing the data generated from and about their users.
This led to a situation where users have become accustomed to not having to pay for the use of these services, not realizing perhaps, that they and their information have become the products being monetized by the service providers.
Early users of WhatsApp would remember how the service was provided free but only for a certain amount of time, after which they were told it would cost Rs.150 per year, if memory serves me right. It is another thing that WhatsApp never became a paid service and that is one of the major reasons for its huge user base.
Till such time that users are ready to pay, any service provider, be it WhatsApp, Telegram, Signal or any other, would need to generate revenues from some other way. The most obvious and easiest would be monetizing user data, and this is something all users need to keep in mind.
The third issue that we need to keep in mind is what I would call Network Inertia — a combination of network effect and inertia. Due to its early mover advantage, WhatsApp enjoys a humongous user base and the benefits are felt by its users. Just as Google has become a verb, WhatsApp too is almost there. This is why even if there is a shift to other platforms, unless there is a concerted effort by all concerned, it will be very difficult to dislodge WhatsApp from its perch.
For instance, sometime last year, the alumni network of a leading B-school decided to shift entirely from WhatsApp to Telegram. The issue was not privacy, but the limit in the number of users per group. Multiple groups had to be formed in every city leading to a nightmare when it came to coordinating and sharing conversations between them. Shifting to Telegram also allowed the formation of one group for the entire alumni network too.
But contrary to expectations, this shift to Telegram has not led to an improvement or increase in participation, on the other hand, conversations within city wise networks dropped drastically and are a mere fraction of what they were when on WhatsApp. The reason was that while users were checking WhatsApp regularly due to the presence of other groups and individuals there, Telegram was being checked very infrequently, thereby drastically reducing the efficiency of the network.
Ultimately, what users need to keep in mind is that we live in an information-driven age, and the moment we chose to use a smartphone, we effectively surrendered at least a bit of our privacy.
Secondly, the so-called anonymity that we thought the internet allowed us is a myth, unless we actively use cloaking tools and that anything and everything we do is traceable and is remembered forever.