WhatsApp: It may suck, but we must liberate ourselves from data capture

Dear Editor,

DESPITE a rush by millions of people to download alternative messaging services Telegram and Signal, I suspect the majority of people will accept the latest WhatsApp terms of use anyway.

It’s human nature – and Mark Zuckerberg knows it. The Facebook CEO has been pushing the boundary of what is private and what is permissible for the past 15 years.

Remember the outcry when he said, in 2010, that “people have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people”. What he failed to mention was that Facebook had been consistently pushing its users – pushing us – into more and more lax attitudes to our own privacy. “That social norm is just something that’s evolved over time,” he concluded.

WhatsApp’s latest privacy warning is finally the straw that broke the public’s trust.

The messaging app stunned its two billion users earlier this month with a warning that it was moving its servers to Facebook and integrating the way it stored user data.

As a strict condition of its acquisition of WhatsApp in 2012, Facebook agreed to keep the data of each service separate. It has been sued multiple times by European competition watchdogs for breaking these agreements, over and over.

WhatsApp told users: “The information we share with the other Facebook companies includes your account registration information (such as your phone number), transaction data, service-related information, information on how you interact with others (including businesses) when using our services, mobile device information, your IP address, and may include other information identified in the privacy policy section entitled ‘Information We Collect’ or obtained upon notice to you or based on your consent.”

Most of that data Facebook arguably already has – certainly if you have Facebook Blue, as the master app is known internally. These new WhatsApp Ts&Cs are mostly cosmetic, say analysts, to allow businesses to trade on WhatsApp, which, like Instagram, is busily transforming itself into a shopping portal where, for instance, you can buy the clothes you see.

All this is unfolding against a much bigger background. The Federal Trade Commission and 46 US States are suing Facebook for anticompetitive behaviour and for stifling competition and innovation. They want to force it to sell WhatsApp and Instagram. I suspect, as do many commentators, that this data integration is a canny way of trying to avoid a breakup by claiming the back-end services are too integrated.

Given that Facebook is facing such stiff legal headwinds, a prudent CEO would probably not do something to antagonise the already furious US attorney general. But Facebook – and Zuckerberg himself – are infamously tone-deaf.

Remember when Zuckerberg said it was a “pretty crazy idea” that the 2016 Brexit and US elections were manipulated? That was before the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed that our democracy had been subverted.

He once argued that Holocaust denialists weren’t “intentionally getting it wrong”. Last year, he refused to condemn US President Donald Trump’s racist dog whistle about a Black Lives Matters protest when Trump quoted a Southern police chief, who infamously said: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

In a staff address, Zuckerberg said it would “suck for us” if the social giant faced “a major lawsuit against our own government”. As Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is a fierce critic of Big Tech’s monopolistic behaviour, tweeted: “What would really ‘suck’ is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.”

Why would Facebook risk the further ire of regulators and the US government? Part of the reason is Facebook is ploughing ahead with its plan to deeply integrate its messaging apps – Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram – so it can argue it can’t be forced to sell off the last two because they are … too deeply integrated.

It clearly seems like something Zuckerberg – who has finally banned Trump but only after Twitter led the way in condemning his incitement of last week’s US Capitol riots – thinks he’ll get away with. Again.

But it is worth noting the attitude and tone of the comments in the report by US lawmakers after they summoned Zuckerberg and the chiefs of Apple, Amazon and Google for virtual antitrust hearings last year. The CEOs were “often evasive and non-responsive, raising fresh questions about whether they believe they are beyond the reach of democratic oversight”.

This is the year we will see how the clash of the tech titans and the righteous lawmakers develop.

Meanwhile, as Scott McNealy, the CEO of the once-great tech firm Sun Microsystems, said: “You have zero privacy anyway.” That was in 1999. His advice? “Get over it.”

I disagree. We should fight every encroachment. We should resist every attempt by tech firms to profit from our personal data. We’ve lived through State Capture, now we have to liberate ourselves from Data Capture.

Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.