As a result of the announcement, Facebook was accused of surveillance and unethical use of data, and many users of WhatsApp deleted the app and turned to competitors. This was unprecedented in the tech world: never before had we seen a consumer boycott of an app affecting one of the tech giants in this way.
Why is this happening now?
However, perhaps the most threatening aspect of data sharing is not its actual use, but its potential. It does not necessarily matter whether Facebook promises not to read our WhatsApp messages, the problem is that it could. When data is collected and held, there is a fear of who it could be shared with, overtly or covertly, in the future. This was seen in 2013, when the Guardian reported on Snowden’s revelation that the US government had been working with telecommunications companies to obtain data about its citizens and visitors, and that the same was happening in the UK.
Surveillance is, and has always been, an infringement of civil liberties: in the same way that the police cannot follow us on the street if we are not suspected of a crime, many of us feel strongly that our digital footprint should not be followed or tracked. People feel that they are being watched, by companies and by governments, and reassuring them does not work: if data is tracked, the perception is that it can be dangerous. Facebook denies the transfer of data, but trust has already been eroded (indeed the rollout of WhatsApp’s new terms was delayed until May, and WhatsApp is launching a new campaign advertising their end-to-end encryption as secure).
Why have we put up with it until now?
The online privacy dilemma centres on a trade-off: consumers give away their data in exchange for a personalised experience. Personalisation is free and, above all, convenient: consumers are happy to share their data because it gives them easier access to their favourite music, videos and products; tailored suggestions of other things to try; directions based on their location; and useful information about nearby facilities and attractions. Some experts argue that this is exactly why GDPR failed to significantly raise public knowledge of data practices: it has been an inconvenient, invasive, and clunky way for consumers to reclaim ownership of their data.
However, in the case of WhatsApp, a convenient alternative has arisen: valid alternative apps have emerged, tipping the balance of the trade-off for many. Previously, a boycott would have meant renouncing a valuable service, but now it is perfectly feasible to switch to a competitor that offers the same service while prioritising privacy. Telegram and Signal, for example, gained around 40 million users in a single day following WhatsApp’s announcement; Signal’s servers crashed due to the sudden increase in its user base. If privacy is becoming convenient, there is little to stop consumers from choosing it, tipping the market in its favour.
How can brands navigate this rebalancing of the scales in the privacy field?
Privacy is becoming a competitive advantage for platforms that prioritise it. Terms and conditions are no longer a question purely for the legal department, or an add-on to a business model: they are a question of reputation. It is a real risk for companies to be perceived by their customers as scrutinising their activity too keenly, particularly if this is done covertly. Users are starting to notice surveillance, and they care. This shift is motivating new brands to make privacy their competitive advantage. However, the market for personalisation is resilient, and it cannot be disregarded. The focus for brands now is on finding a way to enable privacy-focused users, as well as personalisation-focused ones, to enjoy their products.
Legislation on the issue is still developing, both within the UK and internationally. However, the market is very much ahead of the legislation: what is legal is no longer necessarily perceived as acceptable by the user base. Waiting for legislation to pave the way for tighter privacy controls might become a reputational risk. Taking a lead in the field and prioritising privacy might now be the best policy.
However, this trend relies on new actors resisting pressure from the tech giants, who have been challenged before but have often been able to simply buy out the competition. The nature of these particular competitors, however, seems different: they have taken an ethical stance against the exploitation of consumer data, so are likely to be less susceptible to attractive financial offers that will risk reducing the integrity of their business. We look forward to seeing this story develop in the coming months, as it forms an important precedent for the future of internet privacy.
Since the time of writing, new developments necessitate a brief update:
On top of pressures from consumers for more privacy, WhatsApp has also faced criticism from conservative governments including those of the UK, India, and China, who are pressuring the company to scrap end-to-end encryption in order to increase national security. Governments argue that by tracking people’s messages, they would be more able to prosecute crimes. WhatsApp has reacted strongly against this request, defending its use of encryption and its customers’ right to privacy. The company is launching an awareness campaign advertising the benefits of end-to-end encryption, which is set to roll out on Monday 21st June 2021. With the response of governments still to come, for now WhatsApp is stuck between a rock and a hard place.