We're selling ourselves and we think it's cool

25 Feb. 2014

The day after Facebook bought Whatsapp, 500,000 people signed up to Telegram. With three out of four Europeans worried about how companies, including search engines and social networks, use their information, some users are voting with their feet and for good reason.

Last Updated: 04 Mar 2016

The Huffington Post asked us to comment on Facebook's recent acquisition of Whatsapp.  The article, by Tactical Tech's executive director Stephanie Hankey, was published in German here. Read the original English version below.

Let's face it

The day after Facebook bought Whatsapp, 500,000 people signed up to Telegram, a messaging service that sells itself with the strapline 'taking back our right to privacy'. If Telegram can deliver on its promises or not is beside the point. The fact that it became the most downloaded application in Germany, the Netherlands and Spain overnight, however, is significant. With three out of four Europeans worried about how companies, including search engines and social networks, use their information, some users are voting with their feet and for good reason.

Facebook have been undoubtedly smart in their acquisition of Whatsapp. They have gained a solid grip on the mobile market as well as younger users who have been choosing away from Facebook, or 'Stalkbook', as it is sometimes more popularly known. But they have also gained a valuable intelligence base that will augment its existing knowledge of users and their networks. In buying Whatsapp, Facebook buys a user-base, a set of habits and networks that it didn't have previously. Better to know about tomorrow's potential users than today's.

But why should we care? Well, minimally this means that data from users who use both services will probably be linked in the future at the expense of their privacy. But, this also means that those Whatsapp users who chose away from the hideous privacy reputation of Facebook, just lost out. With WhatsApp sucking up all the phone numbers in peoples address book to their central servers and promising to keep peoples communication 'for life', this may be a bigger deal than we think.

WhatsApp have done a pretty good job of selling themselves as the caring types when it comes to data and privacy. They have had a believable pitch based on their 'no advertising for data' model and an ideal poster boy in their Ukrainian founder, telling stories about respecting privacy due to the upbringing he had with his parents not being able to have an honest conversation on the phone. However, within the industry WhatsApp are known for their multiple security breaches and badly implemented encryption. Last year they were found guilty of violating international privacy laws through their policy of forcing users to handover their address books, leading millions of non-consenting, non-users to give up their data. Now that they have sold out to Facebook, something they said last year they would not do, we can guess that nothing will be done by Facebook to improve nor maintain the confidentiality of the 10 billion text messages per day to which they are about to gain access. Sadly, WhatsApp's manifesto on their website claiming:  “Your data isn’t even in the picture. We are simply not interested in any of it” now looks more like a punchline than a promise.

And here lies the real problem. Whatever happens with WhatsApp, their users and their data, this is not a first and will doubtless not be the last company to compromise users trust or privacy. The real problem lies in the new economy we have bought in to as users and the new types of user-monopolies these types of acquisitions are creating.

Our criteria for joining social networking platforms has become a simple one, it should be free, efficient and have a big user-base. But we need to get smarter at understanding what kind of bargain we have made. No matter what the service is, the trade is data on us, our friends and our actions. Even if the company is not trading this for advertising, as WhatsApp didn't, it is holding it in the bank in order to cash it in later. Thanks to the in-crowd-groovy-stay-ahead-of-the-curve nature of digital media, technology companies have capitalised on the fact that users don't really understand the technology they are being sold and don't really care what they are saying 'yes' to as long as they join in with their friends. Even for those of us who are slowly accepting the addage 'if the service is free, you are the product' it is still difficult to navigate the alternatives.  Despite promises of open source and not collecting data, you have to really dig to figure out what the actual deal is. These services are only partially open source or only collecting part of your data. These promises are therefore only partially true. Social media's business model is to do whatever can be done to extend the user-base and then sell it. We are still selling ourselves and we still think it is cool.

Whilst we wait for governments to step-up and policies to be put in place that may start to protect us as users, we are distracted from a more significant failing. New forms of monopolies – user monopolies - are emerging in this space and the law is not keeping up. Facebook has acquired not only WhatsApp but also Instagram, Microsoft has bought Skype and Google continues to dominate across a wide-range of services. In this environment users are literally locked-in to services, opting out means opting out entirely from the public sphere. What we need as users is the ability to interface across services and platforms, the ability to migrate our content to new platforms when the old one does not suit us anymore and the ability to delete our histories from services we no longer want to belong to.

Social media has been transformative in terms of its power to connect us. It is the public sphere and our unfettered access to it is essential. Social media companies need to make money and their trade is data. Now we need laws in place that allow us to make choices and companies who want to make money from promoting privacy rather than eroding it. Until this happens, in order not to be 'used' but to be 'users', we will need to adapt a more critical eye and learn to be creative in how we use social media.

Stephanie Hankey is the Executive Director of Tactical Tech, a non-profit organisation working internationally to raise awareness and build skills related to privacy and digital security. This article was contributed to by the international team of technologists and activists working at Tactical Tech. Thanks to Tom Longley, Marek Tuszynski, Anne Roth, Becky Kazansky, Chris Walker, Laurent Dellere and Kaustubh Srikanth for their contributions.