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
A look into the friction between Facebook and WhatsApp
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.)
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.
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.