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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

A look into the friction between Facebook and WhatsApp 

The high-profile resignation this week by WhatsApp’s co-founder, Jan Koum, has provided the world with a reminder that WhatsApp is entirely owned by Facebook

If you’re a user of both services, you may have noticed over the past year or so that communicating with a new friend on WhatsApp may, a day or two later, prompt Facebook to suggest that person as a friend on its own platform Reuters
If you’re a user of both services, you may have noticed over the past year or so that communicating with a new friend on WhatsApp may, a day or two later, prompt Facebook to suggest that person as a friend on its own platform Reuters

One is the world’s most popular social media service; the other is the world’s most-used mobile messaging app, with 2.2 billion and 1.5bn monthly users respectively. The relationship between Facebook and WhatsApp is of little interest to the majority of people who use them – indeed, in terms of day-to-day usage it’s barely noticeable.

But the high-profile resignation this week by WhatsApp’s co-founder, Jan Koum, has provided the world with a reminder that WhatsApp is entirely owned by Facebook, and when internal disagreements happen, Facebook – through its sheer size and power – is likely to win. A report in The Washington Post speculates that Koum made his decision because of a “clash of cultures” between the privacy-conscious, advertisement-averse WhatsApp, and its data-hungry, scandal-stricken parent. (WhatsApp’s co-founder, Brian Acton, quit in September.)

If you’re a user of both services, you may have noticed over the past year or so that communicating with a new friend on WhatsApp may, a day or two later, prompt Facebook to suggest that person as a friend on its own platform. This unsettling manifestation of data sharing between the two services was the result of a WhatsApp privacy policy update in 2016, which informed us (if we bothered to read it) that some information would be shared with Facebook for security, analysis and advertising purposes.

It was a curious move for a service that has so often stated its disdain for advertising. “Remember,” Koum wrote in 2012, “when advertising is involved, you the user are the product.” That policy change may have been the first sign of pressure being placed on WhatsApp by its owner; sources informed The Washington Post that Facebook has since been calling for WhatsApp to feature full user profiles (rather than just phone numbers) and for communication to be more “business friendly”, which is taken to mean a watering down of message encryption.

Should we be surprised at this outcome? When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg bought WhatsApp for US$19 billion (Dh69.77bn) in 2014, he described it as being “worth more”. He also said: “I could be wrong. It could be the one service that reaches 1bn [people] and doesn’t become valuable.” WhatsApp’s revenue at the time was reportedly a lowly $20 million, and Facebook has evidently found it difficult to earn the envisaged revenue while WhatsApp has kept its privacy features so closely guarded.

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Read more:

Skype ban in the UAE: what the future may hold for VoIP services

WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum leaving Facebook

Facebook needs to quickly earn back the trust of users

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Now, with Koum and Acton gone, many WhatsApp users will be wondering who is left to fight their corner. Zuckerberg wished Koum well on his departure, but relations between the two companies are evidently strained.

Acton makes no bones about his distaste for the company that made him a billionaire; not only has he recommended that his Twitter followers “Delete Facebook”, he has also invested $50m in Signal, a WhatsApp competitor that promises that its commitment to privacy will remain undiluted. Over the next few days, many WhatsApp users may jump ship to competing apps such as Signal, Telegram and Wire, but those who stick around may find themselves drawn ever closer into Facebook’s data ecosystem.