DIGITAL GIANT: Facebook has 2.7 billion users, WhatsApp has 2 billion and Instagram, has another 1 billion. They are all getting fused into the Facebook ecosystem. Image Credit: AFP


  • New terms of use and privacy policy will allow WhatsApp to share data with its parent, Facebook. 
  • Many users are just fine with it, and even welcome the changes.
  • Data privacy advocates are not happy with this. They're fighting back; as a result, there's a move to ditch WhatsApp, in favour of other apps (see list below).
  • Signal and Telegram have seen a sudden spike in usage. On Thursday (January 7, 2021), Signal's popularity shot up further when Tesla's Elon Musk and Twitter's Jack Dorsey endorsed it.
  • Signal was built by the original WhatsApp creator (see timeline).

DUBAI: WhatsApp’s 2 billion active users face a dilemma. WhatsApp recently announced a new Terms of Service (ToS) and Privacy Policy. The “key updates” state that WhatsApp users must accept the new terms and policy — or the app gets deactivated. It was later rolled back.

WhatsApp plans to offer users the ability to review the new privacy policy inside its app, ahead of the new May 15th launch (moved from February 8th). The company already tried to reassure users through WhatsApp’s Status feature, but now WhatsApp will include a banner that can be tapped to pull up the explanation of the new policy.

The new policy actually came from Facebook, which owns WhatsApp. For one, the move is designed to enable businesses using WhatsApp to use Facebook-hosted services, to store and manage their WhatsApp chats, for example.

Many users who have become dependent on WhatsApp have accepted it as a quid-pro-quo — a form of I-give-you-my-data-in-exchange-for-free-use-of-your-app kind of deal. Many, however, had been disappointed by the move, resigned to the idea that the “data grab” by Facebook from WhatsApp is a fait accompli, something that’s going to happen, anyway. Here's a lowdown on this WhatsApp saga so far:

What’s been laid out in WhatsApp’s new terms of service (ToS) and Privacy Policy?

Put simply, WhatsApp is asking users to agree to let its owner, Facebook Inc — and its subsidiaries — collect your data.

An interesting caveat in the January 4, 2021 WhatsApp notice: "You can also visit the Help Centre if you would prefer to delete you account and would like more information.”

What’s the big deal about that?

WhatsApp announced the new Privacy Policy, in which users will be forced to accept the new policy, or stop using the app. The new policy does not apply in the European Union as it is deemed to violate user data rules. The new WhatsApp ToS is seen as flouting the principles of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), passed in 2018. GDPR protects people’s rights and their personal information in the digital domain.

Facebook had until recently been mired in controversies over privacy breaches and and allowing its platform to skew elections. It has been accused of being a purveyor of fake news. Some see FB as a social media giant that feeds off news media organisations all over the world. Facebook has instituted reforms to curb its misuse. Still, moves are afoot in the US to break it up, perhaps akin to the way AT&T was broken up in the early 1980s.

How many users does WhatsApp have?

2 billion worldwide, according to the company.

2 billion

number of WhatsApp users worldwide
Facebook sued for monopolistic practices
On December 9, 2020, the US Federal Trade Commission sued Facebook, alleging that the company is illegally maintaining its personal social networking monopoly through a years-long course of anticompetitive conduct.

Ian Conner, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Competition, said: “Facebook’s actions to entrench and maintain its monopoly deny consumers the benefits of competition. Our aim is to roll back Facebook’s anticompetitive conduct and restore competition so that innovation and free competition can thrive.”

The move came following a lengthy probe in cooperation with a coalition of attorneys general of 46 US states, the District of Columbia, and Guam.

What happens next?

Any move to break up Facebook into its component parts, or punish it for alleged anti-competitive practices will be a long court battle. The lawsuit will likely be contested for years. If the court-mandated AT&T break-up in 1984 is any precedent, it took many years before the Bell System was spun-off into a long-distance company (AT&T) and seven regional Bell Operating Companies. But that's with the old phone technology, with much fewer lines of software codes involved.

What’s been the reaction of users?

Most users are happy with WhatsApp, even oblivious to the changes. Others started checking out rival messaging apps. There’s been a reported global flight from WhatsApp. On the microblogging site Twitter, some privacy activists questioned the "accept our data grab or get out" move, and suggested users to switch to apps like Signal and Telegram. It's gaining ground.

Signal and Telegram have seen a sudden spike in usage. On Thursday, signal's popularity shot up further Elon Musk endorsed it. Musk has one of the most-followed Twitter accounts. Twitter top boss Jack Dorsey, also endorsed Signal.

What’s the encryption technology used by WhatsApp?

WhatsApp uses the same encryption technology used by Signal, a company created Brian Acton, one of the two original WhatsApp co-founders.

[] More than 100,000 users installed Signal across the app stores of Apple and Google in the last two days.

[] Telegram picked up nearly 2.2 million downloads, according to data analytics firm Sensor Tower.

[] Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's media office and the country's defense ministry stated on Monday they're quitting WhatsApp.
WhatsApp founder Brian Acton left WhatsApp in 2017 and donated $50 million to fund Signal.
WhatsApp founder Brian Acton left WhatsApp in 2017 and donated $50 million to fund Signal.

What’s the long and short of the FTC complaint against WhatsApp parent company, Facebook?

The complaint alleges the following:

  • [] Facebook has engaged in a systematic strategy—including its 2012 acquisition of up-and-coming rival Instagram, its 2014 acquisition of the mobile messaging app WhatsApp
  • [] It imposes anticompetitive conditions on software developers—to eliminate threats to its monopoly.
  • [] Facebook’s “course of conduct” harms competition, leaves consumers with few choices for personal social networking, and deprives advertisers of the benefits of competition.
Whatsapp timeline
Image Credit: Gulf News / Vijith Pulikkal

What could be the outcome of the FTC’s legal action?

The FTC is seeking a permanent injunction in US federal court that could, among other things:

  • [] Require divestitures of assets, including Instagram and WhatsApp;
  • [] Prohibit Facebook from imposing anticompetitive conditions on software developers; and
  • [] Require Facebook to seek prior notice and approval for future mergers and acquisitions.

What do the new WhatsApp terms and policy mean to you and me?

If you are a WhatsApp user and don’t agree to let Facebook get a hold of your WhatsApp data, you will, in practice, be thrown you out of WhatsApp. You won’t be able to use it. Many people are shocked by this let-Facebook-grab-your-data-or-leave proposition. Though many more have already agreed to the new terms, others have switched over to other messaging apps, like Signal, which was created by the original creators of WhatsApp before it was bought by Facebook.

How easy is it to break up Facebook?

Not easy. First of all, they can hire the best lawyers in town. Facebook won't easily give up its dominance, achieved through acquisitions that targetted potential competitors in the past. Facebook has 2.7 billion users, WhatsApp has 2 billion and Instagram, has another 1 billion. The FTC seeks, in part, to force Facebook to sever its subsidiaries Instagram (bought in 2012 for $1 billion), and WhatsApp (bought 2014 for $19 billion). Even if the FTC lawsuit ultimately prospers, it’s anyones guess how Facebook would go about separating itself from the two.

In practical terms, given the complexity of codes involved that have lead to the increasing integration of Facebook, Whatsapp and Insta, this would make it extremely difficult to break these components up. The judge would have to understand the spaghetti of codes that come into play in the integration — or break-up — of what started off as distinct, even competing platforms, which has made Facebook the behemoth that it has become today.

Alternatives to WhatsApp:

Version 3 Whatsapp
Image Credit: Seyyed de la Llata
  • The dichotomy between a chat/messaging app (like WhatsApp) and a personal networking service (like Facebook, which also comes as an app, with a messaging tool), had never been blurrier.
  • Due to WhatsApp's terms and privacy policy change, many have awakened to a whole new world of possibilities and alternatives.
  • It's up to the authorities in different jurisdictions to make a call on what constitutes anti-competitive practices, abuse of monopoly power and data breach..
  • It’s one of those realities we face due to increasing dependence on messaging services. Given the new take-it-or-leave-it policy, WhatsApp can get what they want, the way an addict desires an addictive substance and grabbing it no matter the cost, now that you’re hooked.
  • Healthy competition is the greatest driver of disruptive innovation and the advancement of civilisation.