WhatsApp Co-Founder Talks Selling 'Users' Privacy' to Facebook

(Image credit: WhatsApp)

WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton went silent after tweeting in March that "It is time. #deletefacebook." That may have seemed like an odd tweet from someone who made billions of dollars by selling his company to Facebook in 2014. In an interview Forbes published this week, however, Acton made it clear that making a lot of money was pretty much the only thing he and Facebook agreed on even before the $22 billion deal closed.

The most telling quote from the Forbes interview is this: "At the end of the day, I sold my company. I sold my users’ privacy to a larger benefit. I made a choice and a compromise. And I live with that every day.” The rest of the interview tells a story of two very different companies--one that highly valued user privacy and one that prioritized ad revenues--attempting to reconcile their differences.

Acton noted that Facebook "isn't the bad guy" in this situation. The company was looking to offer the most possible information to advertisers, and the push-back from Acton and WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum on incorporating ads in the messaging app or using its data to inform ads on Facebook was bound to cause problems. So many, in fact, that Acton left $850 million on the table by leaving Facebook when he did.

The issues started before WhatsApp and Facebook even closed their deal. Acton said he was coached to tell European regulators that the two companies wouldn't "blend" data so the deal would be approved. Meanwhile, teams at Facebook were figuring out how exactly they would blend that information, he said. Rights groups, regulators and others later discovered this data-sharing and criticized the companies for deceiving their users.

Later, the UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) said that WhatsApp vowed not to share data with Facebook until doing so would comply with the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). That announcement was made four years after the acquisition was finalized--something that was supposed to be true from the moment the ink dried (and even then only for users protected by GDPR).

Acton said he and Koum later bristled at Facebook's proposal to show ads in WhatsApp and to let businesses analyze conversations with customers. Doing so would likely require the developers to break the end-to-end encryption that prevents WhatsApp and Facebook from reading user messages, according to Acton, which from his perspective would undermine the trust that allowed the messenger to become so popular.

Other problems ultimately led to Acton's departure from Facebook. He later joined the new Signal Foundation established to make sure the popular Signal messaging app, along with the Signal end-to-end encryption protocol used by WhatsApp and other tools, would continue operations. He also invested $50 million. Not long after, he sent the "#deletefacebook" tweet as the Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded.

Koum stuck it out longer than Acton so his stocks would fully vest. He departed Facebook in May, with The Washington Post reporting that he repeatedly clashed with Facebook's leadership, and other WhatsApp employees are said to be waiting for their stock to vest in November before departing the company as well. This in turn has raised fears that WhatsApp's default use of end-to-end encryption is endangered.

This all seems to be part of Facebook's approach to big acquisitions. Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger both left Facebook on September 25, ostensibly so they could "explore our curiosity and creativity again," BBC quoted Systrom as saying. But the publication cited sources who claimed that Instagram's ability to remain independent had declined over time. 

It might seem naive for Acton, Koum, Systrom and Krieger to have expected their companies to remain independent within Facebook. Acton himself seems not to blame Facebook.

“At the end of the day, I sold my company. I am a sellout. I acknowledge that," he told Forbes.

At least now he's using the money he made to sell out for good causes. He's reportedly pledged to spend $1 billion of his $3.6 billion to "support healthcare in impoverished areas of the U.S. as well as early childhood development," Forbes reported. And, of course, he's allowing Signal to grow.

Nathaniel Mott
Freelance News & Features Writer

Nathaniel Mott is a freelance news and features writer for Tom's Hardware US, covering breaking news, security, and the silliest aspects of the tech industry.

  • kenjitamura
    In the not too distant future the Facebook ToS will include a clause that requires monthly colonoscopies for their users to send images to pharmaceutical companies wanting to better target people with advertisements for hemorrhoid cream. And we will all be to blame for letting it reach that point and will probably just grimace through the discomfort so that we can keep updating our status for others, who don't really care, to know what we're doing.
  • Christopher1
    Kenjitamura, stop using hyperbole. No, that will never happen and the fact is that you are paying nothing for a service from Facebook that does cost money.

    Ads do not pay for everything and they are honest about "Yes, we are collecting data and selling it!"
  • joe.owes.lewis
    21365059 said:
    Kenjitamura, stop using hyperbole. No, that will never happen and the fact is that you are paying nothing for a service from Facebook that does cost money.

    Ads do not pay for everything and they are honest about "Yes, we are collecting data and selling it!"

    Just not even trying to hide the fact you are on the payroll. lol.

    Christopher1, Facebook pays well (obviously) but your own hyperbole inferring somehow that Facebook is honest is...I mean, you actually wrote that? lol
    Whether you are a government official or just a loser who loves Facebook is irrelevent. Your object of affection has long been propagated via contracts from the likes of the Dod's SMISC (https://www.darpa.mil/program/social-media-in-strategic...). Now, while In-Q-Tel (CIA funding) is not easily traceably related to Facebook, Facebooks DOES participate in projects for the CIA (recruiting, for example: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/technology/news/article.cfm?...).

    Ads do not pay for everything there? Well Christopher1...you knew that. Why don't you try honesty? Ah well, doesn't pay to be honest or transparent, eh?