The flight from WhatsApp

John Naughton:

Not surprisingly, Signal has been staggering under the load of refugees from WhatsApp following Facebook’s ultimatum about sharing their data with other companies in its group. According to data from Sensor Tower Signal was downloaded 8.8m times worldwide in the week after the WhatsApp changes were first announced on January 4. Compare that with 246,000 downloads the week before and you get some idea of the step-change. I guess the tweet — “Use Signal” — from Elon Musk on January 7 probably also added a spike.

In contrast, WhatsApp downloads during the period showed the reverse pattern — 9.7m downloads in the week after the announcement, compared with 11.3m before, a 14 per cent decrease.

This isn’t a crisis for Facebook — yet. But it’s a more serious challenge than the June 2020 advertising boycott. Evidence that Zuckerberg & Co are taking it seriously comes from announcements that Facebook has cancelled the February 8 deadline in its ultimatum to users. It now says that it will instead “go to people gradually to review the policy at their own pace before new business options are available on May 15.”  As Charles Arthur has pointed out, the contrast between the leisurely pace at which Facebook has moved on questions of hate speech posted by alt-right outfits and it’s lightning response to the exodus from WhatsApp is instructive.  It shows what really matters to the top brass.

Signal seems an interesting outfit, incidentally, and not just because of its technology. It’s a not-for-profit organisation, for one thing. Its software is open source — which means it can be independently assessed. And it’s been created by interesting people. Brian Acton, for example, is one of the two co-founders of WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014 for $19B. He pumped $50m of that into Signal, and no doubt there’s a lot more where that came from. And Moxie Marlinspike, the CEO, is not only a cryptographer but also a hacker, a shipwright, and a licensed mariner. The New Yorker had a nice profile of him a while back.

Davids can sometimes really upset tech Goliaths

John Naughton

The leading David at the moment is Max Schrems, the Austrian activist and founder of the most formidable data-privacy campaigning organisation outside of the US.  As a student, he launched the campaign that eventually led to the Court of Justice of the European Union ruling that the ‘Safe Harbour’ agreement negotiated between the EU and the US to regulate data transfer between Europe and the US was invalid.  NOYB was established as a European non-profit that works on strategic litigation to ensure that the GDPR is upheld. It started with a concept, a website and a crowdfunding tool and within two months acquired thousands of “supporters” that has allowed it to begin operations with basic funding at €250,000 per year.   A quick survey of its website suggests that it’s been very busy.  And Schrems’s dispute with the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) about her failure to regulate Facebook’s handling of European users’ data has led to the Irish High Court ordering the  DPC to cover the costs of Schrems’s legal team in relation to the Court of Justice ruling on EU-US data transfers.

What’s interesting about this story is the way it challenges the “learned helplessness” that has characterised much of the public response to abuses of power by tech giants.  The right kind of strategic litigation, precisely targeted and properly researched can bring results.