WhatsApp is delaying privacy changes thanks to user exodus

The February deadline has now been moved to May, but it's still happening.

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Users are fleeing from messaging app WhatsApp following the announcement that it would begin sharing certain usage data with parent company Facebook. The company has responded that it will delay the update as millions of users have moved to rival services Signal and Telegram, the former of which is doing so well its app has been experiencing loading issues in the face of the new usage.

The changes now won't go into place until after May 2021.

Return on investment — It's notable but unsurprising that this is only a delay, rather than a reversal. Facebook isn't a non-profit or a charity; it doesn't purchase any company without an intention to eventually make money from it. And at a whopping $19 billion, WhatsApp remains Facebook's biggest acquisition to date — one that it hasn't yet turned into a money-printing machine.

WhatsApp does not display advertising, and following its acquisition by Facebook in 2014, the app removed the $1 fee it historically charged users. Early last year, WhatsApp canceled an initiative to embed advertisements into the messaging app.

A Facebook account is not required to use WhatsApp, but whenever the update goes live, users must agree to grant Facebook access to metadata including IP addresses, user location, battery level, and IMEI numbers, or the permanent identifier associated with a smartphone.

"Trust us" — WhatsApp has gone on the defensive, trying to emphasize that Facebook cannot read users' communications, nor does it keep logs of location data or private messages. But Facebook hasn't been clear what it intends to use the collected metadata for. It could potentially be used to target users in advertisements. User data collected by Facebook has been misused in the past, such as to hide housing advertisements from users in poorer locales or target political ads discouraging certain demographics from voting.

Deja vu — The change to WhatsApp's policies surely comes as a slap in the face to the app's creators, who built the app with strict privacy ideals in mind and a disdain for targeted advertisements. Both co-founders left Facebook after the autonomy they were once promised to maintain the messaging app's mission vanished. But then again, they sold to Facebook — surely they knew this outcome was all but inevitable.

Following his departure, co-founder Brian Acton famously called on the public to #deletefacebook, and he donated $50 million to WhatsApp competitor Signal, which operates as a non-profit so that it never needs to compromise on its privacy-friendly mission.

Another Instagram — The same fate has been suffered by Facebook's other crown jewel, Instagram. CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised its leaders full autonomy, only to chip away at that control as Facebook sought to integrate the app with the main platform and fill the app with as many advertising opportunities as possible. Instagram accounted for a third of Facebook's revenue in 2019, showing that the $1 billion acquisition paid off in spades, even if many users feel the app's gotten worse over the years.

But users of WhatsApp are very in-tuned to its focus on privacy, and integrating closer with a company synonymous with the opposite may not be a challenge Facebook can overcome no matter how many reassurances it issues.

Facebook has tried to closely integrate its various apps by making it possible to cross-message users between them so, for instance, an Instagram user could message someone on Facebook Messenger. Some believe the company is building these integrations to help argue to regulators that it would be too difficult to break them up in any antitrust decision.

The company is doubtless hoping pushing the deadline for the data-sharing change out to May will mean users stop fleeing, continue using the service, and eventually consent to the changes. In the meantime, we'll continue encouraging our friends to ditch it for Signal.