The WhatsApp "Exodus"

Jan 18

We're already down another week in 2021 and it's starting to feel a bit more like 2020. On the plus side though, Trump leaves office in 2 days and India kickstarted their vaccination drive earlier this week (and 200k+ people have gotten the first shot as of yesterday). On the startup side, it felt like a slower week - a couple of smaller rounds and the news of the Aakash acquisition by BYJUs. The other key story that people have been talking about was WhatsApp's new Privacy Policy and the "Exodus" to Signal and Telegram. I think a lot of the chatter was overblown so here's my take on it.

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The WhatsApp "Exodus"

Just a couple days into 2021 WhatsApp sent a push notification out to all of its users announcing that it would be amending its Terms and Privacy Policy, which gave users until the 8th of February to accept these changes. And then all hell broke loose. Among the Tech Elite on the internet.

Popular entrepreneurs and public figures like Elon Musk and Edward Snowden took to Twitter to tell people to switch to more secure platforms such as Signal or Telegram, which don't access or share as much of your personal information. In India, we also had Vijay Shekhar Sharma (Founder of Paytm), who has been highly critical of the US tech companies, cry afoul of the changes Facebook was adding to WhatsApp's new policy. But most interestingly, it was messages (information and misinformation) on WhatsApp itself that propelled the Indian tech elite to download Signal and attempt to move their groups off WhatsApp.

The chatter only increased over the week as people started virtue signaling that they would be moving to Telegram (funnily enough a lot of these people were posting Instagram Stories about their move). I asked a couple of folks what scared them about Facebook's new policy changes and realized not a lot of people actually knew what Facebook was changing!

Being fearful of Facebook is completely valid, especially in India where the company tried to launch its controversial Free Basics program, an attempt at bypassing net neutrality. The way WhatsApp rolled out these changes was also a complete failure, which is why they are now playing defense and trying to clear up some of the misinformation being spread.

In response to the outcry, on Saturday, Facebook announced it would be delaying the enforcement of the the new terms by 3 months and will "do a lot more to clear up the misinformation around how privacy and security works on WhatsApp." This gives Facebook a longer window to roll out these changes in a way that will allow them to clearly explain what they are changing and why.

From my read of the new terms, WhatsApp is changing the way its policy works for messaging businesses through WhatsApp. "If you message a business (with an official business account), that data may be saved on Facebook servers, and if you buy from a business on WhatsApp via Shops, your shopping activity will go into your profile." (Link)

The policy changes absolutely nothing when it comes to the privacy of your messages with your friends and family, which is why the backlash and outcry seems a bit over the top. Which is also why I don't think we're actually going to see a significant shift to Signal/Telegram. There will be a lot more users in India downloading these other apps and signing up, but how many of those will uninstall and delete WhatsApp?

Another thing to note is that a majority of Indians probably don't know (or care) about privacy. I am not saying that this is good or bad, but just the reality of the situation. WhatsApp now has over 450M Monthly Active Users in India and probably comprises of >90% of India's internet users. For millions of Indians, WhatsApp is their first interaction with the internet. It lets them stay connected with family and friends, run their businesses and a whole lot more. Do we really think they care about these changes that WhatsApp is rolling and which, honestly, largely do not affect them?

Another problem for Signal and Telegram is WhatsApp's network. This hasn't been discussed enough in the Indian context while talking about the backlash. Even if people move to other platforms, moving their networks is going to be a huge and long challenge. Groups are immensely popular on WhatsApp (apart from1-1 messages) and moving these groups to a different messaging app will be very difficult. As WhatsApp becomes more integrated in Indian society (WhatsApp Pay + WhatsApp Business gaining popularity), competing against it will be an uphill battle for other messaging platforms.

This is not to say that a different messaging platform can't eventually come up and overtake WhatsApp in India, but I don't think that will happen anytime soon (unless maybe the Indian government bans the app). Until then, India will continue to run on WhatsApp

🗞️ News of the week

  • Ludo King becomes the first Indian gaming app to cross 100M downloads and recently crossed 500M downloads.

  • The real-money trivia app Zupee raise another $10M from WestCap Group and existing backer Matrix Partners India.

  • According to Bloomberg, BYJUs is acquiring Aakash Educational Services for $1 Billion

  • CoinSwitch Kuber announced it raised a $15M Series A from Ribbit Capital and Paradigm. Existing investors Sequoia Capital and Kunal Shah also participated in the round.

  • Amazon is launching Amazon Academy to cater to students preparing for the JEE (Joint Entrance Examination), which is used for admissions to engineering colleges, including the IITs.

  • N+1 Capital, the newly launched revenue-based debt fund started by investment professionals Rahul Chowdhury and Ashish Singla, aims to raise up to $100 million to invest in startups.

📰 What we've read and listened to this week

🎙️ Podcast of the week: The BigBasket Story: From being written off to $2+ Bn valuation

📚 Book of the week: Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

This memoir is written by the New Yorker's tech reporter. It tells the story of her transition from the publishing industry to a series of jobs at technology companies, and her gradual disillusionment with the industry. I didn't find it compelling, even though it is well written. An extended cameo by Stripe CEO Patrick Collison is perhaps one of the highlights of the book. Shame, because some of Winer's New Yorker articles are good. I enjoyed this one on moderating Hacker News, for example.