The rift between WhatsApp’s cofounders and Facebook’s management is now out in the open.
Weeks after his WhatsApp cofounder Brian Acton had publicly exhorted people to delete Facebook, WhatsApp’s other cofounder and CEO Jan Koum has quit the company. According to a Washington Post report, the move is over differences of opinion around how Facebook attempts to use WhatsApp’s personal data and weakening its encryption. Koum has also resigned from Facebook’s board.
Koum’s exit means that four years after it was acquired, both of WhatsApp’s cofounders have left Facebook. Facebook had acquired WhatsApp for a stunning $19 billion in 2014, and cofounders Acton and Koum had joined Facebook and run WhatsApp as a separate entity. Acton, though, had left the company in September last year and started his own foundation.
But it had become apparent that Acton hadn’t been exactly thrilled with his experience at Facebook, because just last month, he publicly urged people to delete their Facebook accounts. “It is time #DeleteFacebook,” he’d tweeted, joining a chorus of voices after it had emerged that Facebook had let the personal data of 87 million Americans be stolen and used by Cambridge Analytica to target ads during the US Presidential election. It had also emerged that Facebook had been in the know of the breach for years, but had chosen to not reveal it to the public until a whistleblower employee from Cambridge Analytica had talked about what had happened.
For his part, Koum has made no mention of data concerns in his farewell note shared, somewhat ironically, on Facebook. “I’m taking some time off to do things I enjoy outside of technology, such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee. And I’ll still be cheering WhatsApp on – just from the outside,” he said. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even replied on his note, saying that he would miss working with him, and was grateful to Koum for teaching him how encryption of private messages could put power back in users’ hands. He also told Koum that his values will always be at the heart of WhatsApp.
But while Zuckerberg has made a public show of reassuring WhatsApp’s users that their data is safe even after its cofounders have left Facebook, Koum’s exit will fuel speculation over what’s caused both WhatsApp cofounders to quit within 8 months of each other. Acton and Koum were known to have a near-fanatical obsession with the user experience on WhatsApp, having put up a sign in the first WhatsApp office that said that they’d never show their users any ads. As long as they were at WhatsApp, they’d stayed true to their word — WhatsApp remained free for users, and didn’t make any money from advertisements.
But this idealistic position might not have sat well with Facebook’s management, which is entrusted with driving value for Facebook’s shareholders. Facebook had spent $19 million on acquiring WhatsApp, and probably also spends a fair amount to keep it running. While Facebook started showing ads in its own messaging product, Facebook Messenger, it had chosen to keep WhatsApp ad-free. The only other way for Facebook to use WhatsApp within its operations, then, was to use the treasure trove of data it provided. Washington Post reported that WhatsApp’s cofounders, who’ve often spoken about privacy concerns, didn’t quite see eye-to-eye with Facebook’s management about what data to use and how to use it.
And people had been spotting some unsettling terminology in some of WhatsApp’s more recent Terms and Conditions. In India, for instance, its terms and conditions for its UPI product said that it would share its data with Facebook. WhatsApp is the most popular messaging service in the world, and its data can prove invaluable for Facebook as it looks to gather even more information about its users.
Acton and Koum presumably want nothing to do with this, and at this point they can well afford to step aside. They’ve both become fantastically rich thanks to Facebook’s acquisition — Acton is worth $5.7 billion (Rs. 37,000 crore), and Koum is now worth an astonishing $9.7 billion (Rs. 63,000 crore). If they feel that the principles with which they’d founded WhatsApp are no longer being adhered to at Facebook, they can very well choose to not be involved any more. And going by the timing of their exits, it would appear that that’s what’s happened.