A poorly explained and understood announcement by Facebook recently has led to unprecedented growth in the user bases of both Signal and Telegram, rivals to the Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
In the week after the Facebook announcement, which notified users of WhatsApp that they would lose access to the platform after February 8th unless they accepted the new terms under which data was shared with Facebook, downloads of Signal increased 62x over the previous week, to 17.8 million users. Similar application Telegram saw 25 million new users in just the 3 days immediately following the announcement alone.
Both apps have offered a WhatsApp alternative for some time, becoming popular in these days of heightened privacy concerns by being the first platforms to offer end-to-end encryption for user messages. (WhatsApp later followed suit.) But it was the spectre of WhatsApp turning over user data to Facebook that catapulted them into the mainstream.
In recent days, Facebook has delayed the implementation, and put a lot of effort into clarifying the policy change as a result of the massive and immediate backlash. They’ve reassured users that their chats and profile data will not be shared, and that the change is primarily intended to affect business messaging on WhatsApp, and provide greater transparency about how the data is collected and used.
They’ve reiterated that they keep no logs, that all conversations are private and neither WhatsApp nor Facebook can see them thanks to their own encryption. They also clarified that despite initial reports, WhatsApp will not share your contacts with Facebook either, and that groups can remain private.
Too Little, Too Late?
There’s little doubt that many people will be reassured by this, moving ecosystems online is a difficult thing and has high barriers, but there’s also no doubt that for some, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back.
It’s also not the first time Facebook has done something like this. When they acquired the VR system Oculus Rift in 2014, they swore that they would never force anybody to sign into it with their Facebook account. And earlier this year, they announced that they were amalgamating the two. It would no longer be possible to have a separate OR account, and while existing accounts would work, they would only do so until 2023 and would have to be merged by then.
From Cambridge Analytica to election propaganda and everything in-between, Facebook and privacy advocates have long been at odds. This may sway more people away from the Facebook ecosystem, but the truth is, it’s too convenient. everybody you know is on it. And everybody already knows they’re taking your data and using it to target advertising, so what’s the difference anyway?
Still…one day we may regret what we are so cavalier with right now…