SINGAPORE: If you’re reading this after someone shared it over WhatsApp, or its parent company Facebook’s social media network, I don’t blame you. Change is hard.
A report on respected technology site, Ars Technica, last week revealed that WhatsApp is forcing people to accept its sharing of personal data such as their phone number and profile name with Facebook, something they could opt out of previously.
That’s sure to raise eyebrows, if you consider the poor reputation Facebook has had of late.
The social media network has been blamed for influencing American elections and even helping to spread the misinformation that culminated in an unprecedented riot at the United States Capitol last week.
So, why are so many of your friends and family still using WhatsApp? This is down to network effects, which mean that the usefulness of a service is determined by the number of people using it.
WhatsApp had 2 billion users before the massive spike in downloads for rival messaging services Telegram and Signal this week. It takes time and more importantly, effort, for these users to move.
Perhaps more important is the conflicting information that has been shared on WhatsApp’s new privacy policies, by both news sites and the company itself.
Firstly, it is not just now that WhatsApp is sharing information with Facebook to “operate, provide, improve, understand, customize, support, and market our Services and their offerings".
In 2016, WhatsApp gave users a one-time ability to opt out of this, reported tech publication Ars Technica. This will no longer be an option come Feb 8, which is why those who have been careful about their privacy are outraged now.
However, for many users who have just agreed to whatever terms and conditions (T&Cs) are presented to them over the years and not cared at all, the new changes don’t really matter as much.
That’s because they had already consented to the sharing earlier.
This is what it has been trying to emphasise in the past few days, in a sort of belated damage control. And unfortunately, for a communications-related company, its messages are confusing.
READ: Commentary: Facebook’s eleventh-hour suspension of Trump’s account raises questions about its motives
They don’t adequately address the original issue brought up by the Ars Technica story, for example. Instead, they have gone on a tangent and talked about the policy regarding business communications.
Really? I went to my phone to check, and there doesn’t seem to any option to do this. Or is this referring to the new business communications that was just announced?
NO WAY OUT OF THE FAUSTIAN BARGAIN
Is there no way out of the earlier Faustian bargain I had already made to share information with Facebook?
So, here’s the uncomfortable truth: For convenience and ease of use, many users have long crossed many of the red lines we claim to be outraged about now.
We have long become the product ourselves, to be atomised and marketed to digitally, once we signed on for these free (or nearly free) services.
To be fair, WhatsApp has promised to never peek into your messages or share them with Facebook. Those are encrypted, as originally promised, so if that is the baseline you can accept, then you might worry less.
Still, it is good to have consistent pressure on Big Tech companies from time to time, to ensure that users get more clarity and control. Yes, those two Cs are important as we lead increasingly digital lives, from the time we are born to the time we expire.
Choice is also important, given the growing market power of today’s Big Tech companies, which makes it hard for users to disconnect from them.
As for me, I’m still using WhatsApp because family and friends are keeping to it. Ironically, I had been one of the slowest to take it up years ago, when friends were sending me SMS prompts to switch over.
Last week, I downloaded and started using Signal, started by a co-founder of WhatsApp who left the company. I’ve also reinstalled Telegram, another messaging app liked by those who don’t trust WhatsApp and Facebook.
How do I know these services protect my privacy better, beyond their reputation and their (slightly clearer) T&Cs? Well, a lot still depends on trust.
And that’s the rub, really. Trust is a hard-earned commodity and even WhatsApp is learning that lesson. You can lose customers as fast as you win them over virally.
For a surprisingly high number of users, WhatsApp’s latest announcements have added to the deep mistrust they have of Facebook. And that is one deep rut to climb out of.
Listen to experts break down the changes to Whatsapp's terms and conditions and discuss the developments leading up to the point where "all hell broke loose" on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:
Alfred Siew is the editor of Techgoondu. This commentary first appeared on the technology news website.