WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in India but its recent privacy changes have spooked users. Possibly for the first time, this has led to noticeable migration of users to alternative platforms like Signal. In an email interview with TOI, WhatsApp head Will Cathcart admitted the company’s communication about policy changes has caused some confusion but reiterated that messages would remain encrypted. Excerpts from the interview:
The policy update has dented user confidence in WhatsApp’s privacy standards. How are you going to assuage the concerns?
We realise the update has caused some confusion and we want to do everything we can to assure our users. You can tell your messages and calls are protected because they are marked “end-to-end encrypted” at the top of each chat.
There is genuine migration of users to other messaging platforms like Signal. How do you plan to tackle this?
We do not want to confuse people in any way.
We know that we have to compete for users’ trust when it comes to privacy, and we think it is ultimately a very good thing for the world, for people to have choices before them.
Why make it mandatory to accept the latest policy changes, instead of giving users an option?
There are millions of people who communicate with businesses across India via WhatsApp. This update helps with general transparency and includes changes to describe those communications. Even though these are optional features, we think it’s important for everyone to know about them. Not everyone may talk to a business today, but some will in the future.
What exactly are the data sets that Facebook will have access to, of a user on WhatsApp? Why does Facebook need it?
We’re not keeping logs of who everyone in India is texting or calling. We do not share your contacts with Facebook or the other apps Facebook offers. We offer a global service to communicate with friends, family, co-workers and Facebook helps us make sure we can reliably deliver these services. In addition, we work with Facebook to support millions of micro businesses around India.
Commercialisation and monetisation of WhatsApp was a reason why its founder Brian Acton left Facebook in 2017. This is now a major concern in India, and globally. Would you consider changing it?
We have thought long and hard about how to build a business while maintaining the privacy and security of people’s conversations. That is what we are building now. And ultimately we think it’s good for people to understand the business strategy behind the apps they are using. That’s why we announced our plans years in advance. For example, businesses can display what they are selling right within a chat and ultimately make a purchase. We plan to charge some businesses for these services while keeping the app free for people to use.
What happens to the content of my chat with a business on WhatsApp?
We are now offering businesses the option to manage their chats on secure Facebook infrastructure. The role of Facebook in this regard is to securely manage the messages under the business’ instructions and on behalf of the business. Nevertheless, for full transparency, we will let users know right at the top of a chat when a business is getting support from Facebook. It is totally up to the user whether or not to message a business on WhatsApp or whether they want to communicate strictly with friends.
The Indian government has been keen to know the source of a viral message, though WhatsApp says messages are end-to-end encrypted. Will you change your stance on encryption for your largest market?