“I have uninstalled WhatsApp and I am gone,” says Mercè Porta, a 60-year-old former teacher who lives in the province of Barcelona. “When WhatsApp started to send me that as of February 8 I had to accept more things, I thought: it can’t be. I sent a message to all my contacts and told them that I wanted to try leaving WhatsApp and we could see each other on Telegram or Signal. And if not, by phone, like a lifetime, ”he explains precisely by phone to EL PAÍS.
Without WhatsApp, Porta is not afraid of disappearing or not being up to date. “It is also an experiment: to see how many people are looking for me on the other hand and how many people were only to send bullies,” he explains. This weekend he had a theater and has been on Signal with friends and one who did not have called by phone. She also has a last resort: “My husband is still on WhatsApp. If they send a very interesting article, they will tell me ”. The key motive for Porta is to “diversify”. “It seemed good to me that they refined me more in advertising and instead of Viagra and Roomba, more theaters and books came out, but we cannot put all our eggs in the same basket,” he adds.
In Spain, Signal, an open source and encrypted messaging application, had 542 downloads on 6 January. It was out of the top 500 downloads in Spain, according to data from AppAnnie, the industry standard measurement tool. Telegram did not reach 10,000 downloads that day and was ranked 30.
Three days later, Signal was in position 9. From then until 21 it shared the first place with Telegram. In this period, Signal has had as many downloads in Spain as since its creation in 2014 and has reached more than half a million. Telegram started with a much larger user base, but has grown to about eight million total downloads.
Outside of Spain, Signal has been the number one application for several days in more than 40 countries. This Thursday it was still more than 20, with Germany, France, Australia and Belgium among them. The week of January 1-5, Signal was downloaded on 106,175 Android devices, according to data from the Pickaso agency. In the next five days it jumped to 4.6 million and five days later it reached 24.8 million global downloads.
This data is extraordinary, but it is not yet synonymous with active users. One thing is to download an application, another is to use it and not end up deleting it after a few days. EL PAÍS has done an experiment with a group of 27 new users on Telegram and Signal. Both applications alert when someone in your contacts downloads it. He has written a similar message to everyone: “Hi, I see you just installed this app. Could you explain why? ” In Signal they answered 11 of 16; in Telegram, four out of 11. That is, 12 did not open or look at the new applications to see the message from EL PAÍS just days after downloading them. How could you talk to them? By Whatsapp.
Most of the answers were “to try”, “to see what it is like and mess around.” But no one had deleted WhatsApp, for now. There was everything in their profiles: from police officers to filmmakers to scientists, even a former president of the Senate. “I trust the criteria of my children and I share the suspicion they have regarding these great monsters,” Juan José Laborda explains by phone. Another user posted a meme running on Facebook about how “the new rule on Facebook that your photos can be used begins.” That is not true. There is some poetic justice in Facebook being affected by a disinformation campaign on its own platform.
The basic question here is: how important is this to the future of WhatsApp and Facebook’s business model? There are at least four important points:
1. We are in 2021, not in 2016
In 2016, WhatsApp asked for permission to share information with Facebook. Users accepted without much controversy. Now the reaction is different. “It seems that the population is more aware that Facebook is not only a company that created a savvy kid so that we can be in contact with our friends, but that it really is a powerful entity”, says Gloria González Fuster, research professor at the Vrije Universiteit from Brussels. “Suddenly it turns out that the future of America depends on whether or not Mark Zuckerberg gives someone permission to incite an insurrection. These things attract attention, worry. People realize that the data that Facebook has not only allows us to decide whether it is better for us to see ads for one car or another, but also allows them to influence what happens ”.
“On January 31 I disappeared from WhatsApp,” says a prominent Mexican businessman who prefers not to give his name. “I have never wanted to be on Facebook because I think I would be very exposed. What I want is discretion and Signal seems much more confidential to me. Also, the communication monsters are growing and I have always believed in healthy competition. If Signal gets stronger, it oxygenates that competition. I will lose some contacts, but my decision is firm ”, he concludes.
2. Time for the details
Users’ suspicions about what happens to our data on the Internet is clearly greater. The big tech discourse has always been that they don’t do anything so serious: we don’t sell your data, we don’t read your messages. But the time has come to know the details.
“This information is not transparent and offering transparent information is a basic requirement to comply with the European Data Regulation”, says González Fuster. “If we don’t understand what they are doing, no matter how much they say not to worry, they are breaking the law: they have to explain things in clear and simple words, easily accessible,” he adds.
In 2017, the European Commission fined Facebook 110 million for giving “misleading” information when it acquired WhatsApp, precisely about whether it was going to merge account data on Facebook and WhatsApp. “But 110 million is nothing for Facebook. They can see it as a cost of business, and I’m sure they see it that way, ”says Wolfie Christl, researcher and privacy advocate based at CrackedLabs (Vienna). “Why shouldn’t they fool us again? I don’t trust what they say ”.
With questions, doubts grow. No one doubts the encryption of WhatsApp messages when they circulate between two users. But then those messages are stored in the cloud. “WhatsApp encryption is the best possible, created by the Signal Foundation. But this phrase refers only to communication between users, not to backup “, says Bart Preneel, professor at the University of Leuven (Belgium) and a world expert in cryptography. Unlike Signal, WhatsApp is not open source. This means that it would be easier for WhatsApp to send an update to a group of users with a security hole, and it would be difficult to detect it, “he adds. Preneel also cannot confirm whether audio messages are as encrypted in the cloud as between users.
Trust is a very delicate thing. Andrew Bosworth is vice president in charge of virtual and augmented reality development at Facebook. He is one of the first employees of the company and his internal posts have always carried weight. At the end of December he published one on privacy, which this week revealed the newsletter Big Technology: “The global sentiment has been transformed to the point that people are willing to accept sacrifices in product quality” for the benefit of privacy, he writes. Bosworth believes that Facebook and privacy are the same today as Microsoft and viruses in the early 2000s. Either they change a lot, or they will lose market. Bosworth is especially afraid of it because Facebook is expected to market “smart glasses” soon and there will be no way they will sell if the company doesn’t change.
3. The monopoly of social presence
Belgian professor Bart Preneel explains to EL PAÍS that he has always used Signal. “I don’t like WhatsApp because it is not open source and because it collects metadata (contacts, communication patterns) and sends that data to Facebook,” he says. But since 2020 Preneel has been technical head of the Belgian contact tracing app Coronalert. In October, he explains, there was a crash and the team needed to coordinate quickly. “I proposed Signal,” he says, “but a team member couldn’t get it installed. So I was forced to use WhatsApp. ” The group no longer needs so much coordination and hardly receives messages. “When the pandemic is over I will uninstall it again,” he says.
The great advantage of WhatsApp is the so-called network effect: the more people there are, the more people need to be. Being first is basic and has been the great success of Facebook and its two great purchases, Instagram and WhatsApp. Everyone ends up where their colleagues are. Once inside, to leave is to disappear socially. For some sectors it is almost impossible: groups of parents, grandparents, work chats. The problem of dragging people to use another application is not easy.
Ultimately, one answer is legislation: “In telecommunications, we have created a regulatory framework that ensures the benefits of the network effect but also creates the possibility of competition,” says Joris van Hoboken, professor of law at the University of Amsterdam. “With networks and messaging applications it is different because each one has its character,” he adds. Choosing between Vodafone and Movistar is not the same as between WhatsApp and Telegram. Legislation will require finding a new balance, he adds.
4. The magic of diversifying
The most repeated word in the different interviews is “diversify”. WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal are three similar use options. But there are more messaging apps with different features: Slack, Discord, Viber, Line, Element, Briar. Some are more complex, others work better at work or have entered a country better. “It can be diversified by levels of security: it is not the same to talk with my mother than about a sensitive project,” says Marta Beltrán, coordinator of the Degree in Cybersecurity Engineering at the Rey Juan Carlos University. “For the latter I am not going to a free application,” he clarifies.
The result of the fiasco for WhatsApp will not be tragic for the moment, but they have opened a way for many people to try others apps. And in the network effect there is something basic: it is not the same to fight a tiny application than a medium one. If the app rival has a million users and multiplies them by five it reaches five million, but if it already has 50 million and grows by five, it goes to another level. And this can happen if there are more Facebook errors. They will not dethrone WhatsApp, but perhaps the goal is no longer just that. “This can serve to, first, raise awareness about the power of the Facebook group in our communications,” says Ricardo Pabón, marketing director of Uber Spain. “Second, to put privacy as a priority, and third, to diversify as it happens with social networks. That said, WhatsApp will continue to be the core product, even more so when it enriches its experience with micropayments and business channels ”.