Indian Ink
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Indian Ink

Why India must ban WhatsApp temporarily

Requesting the Indian government to break WhatsApp’s unhealthy monopoly in messaging in India, which is now headed to dangerous waters with Facebook’s plan to sell the data of unsuspecting WhatsApp users to corporates

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The recent move by Facebook to access WhatsApp user data and sell it to corporates has raised the hackles of privacy advocates all over the world. This has led to Signal, a competing messenger app that protects user privacy, becoming the top downloaded app in the Apple and Google app stores.

Europe says no to data sharing

Facebook is not trying this stunt in Europe which has been unequivocal about not putting up with such nonsense. So why should the Indian Government allow Facebook to get away with it in India?

Monopolizing messaging in India

WhatsApp currently has 400 million users in India making it the app’s largest user base. But here’s the issue. The typical Indian internet user is not tech-savvy, and what’s worse has no clue about the implications of data privacy. To him, WhatsApp is generic for messaging. SMS is only for OTPs. He would be quite bewildered if we were to suggest he switch to another messaging app.

What this means is it’s going to be almost impossible to convince any Indian to uninstall WhatsApp from his phone, and install a competing messaging app.

I can confirm this as I have been wanting to get rid of WhatsApp when I heard that Facebook had taken over WhatsApp. But I didn’t, because I know that all that will do is cut me off from a vital form of communication in India. This is why I’m in the odd situation of being completely inactive on Facebook for years, but very active on WhatsApp. Being forcibly dragged back into the fake world of Facebook really bothers me, which is why this post.

Why worry if I have nothing to hide?

This is what I used to feel. Then one day I was standing in front of a mirror. And it struck me that I act one way if I am alone and a different way if there is someone else around. So in a way, I did have something to hide, and that was my private self. This lawyer lady has thought this out very well.

What happens to my WhatsApp Groups if I switch?

This is the biggest issue with most Indians. They are stuck with WhatsApp because their groups are only on WhatsApp.

However, it’s not too difficult to get your group to migrate to an app like Signal. It’s just a question of a link you post in your WhatsApp Group.

You basically install Signal, open a group in that app, and send a link in your WhatsApp group. This link is an invitation to those members to join your Signal group. All they have to do is download and install Signal, click on the link, and they will become part of the Signal Group. This writer has detailed out the process.

The issue is how many people will do this. I suspect that some will find even this simple process too hard to do, others will assume it’s complicated and avoid doing it, and the rest may simply not have the patience to do it. So it does look like we are stuck with WhatsApp unless…

Ban WhatsApp to break its monopoly

This vice-like grip on India’s messaging market makes WhatsApp the ultimate in monopoly. The only way this monopoly can be broken is if the Indian government intercedes in this matter. Facebook needs to be categorically told that what applies to Europe will apply to India.

Of course, Facebook will object, as it made $20 billion in 2020 from selling ads based on the data it collected from unsuspecting users.

Facebook’s objection is a good thing as this gives the Indian government an excuse to ban WhatsApp till they come up with an acceptable solution. This will give time for the other messaging apps to present themselves as an option to Indian users who feel lost without WhatsApp. It will thus break WhatsApp’s vice-like grip or monopoly over the Indian market.

The ban can be removed after a month as that will let WhatsApp come back and compete on a more level playing field. After all from an app point of view, this is one powerful app, and it would not be fair to WhatsApp or its users to make the ban permanent.

I don’t know if the Indian government will go that far, but I’m happy to see they are looking into it.

Let the Market decide

If and when WhatsApp goes out of the picture, Indians will look for replacements among the messaging apps that meet privacy guidelines. The market forces will come into play and the one that appeals most to Indian users will take over the vacancy created by WhatsApp’s exit.

Here is a look at the messaging alternatives to WhatsApp. I’m including Facebook in the discussion to compare the huge difference between the amount of data they collect versus an app like Signal.

Facebook

The amount of data Facebook is collecting and sharing is truly mind-boggling. You can see this for yourself on your iPhone by going to the AppStore, searching for the Facebook app, and scrolling down to Privacy to see what Facebook is collecting.

I had to make 13 pages of screen captures to list out all the info that Facebook collects, as compared to the Signal which just collected my name and phone number.

The Champion of Huge Profits

Facebook has tried to fight this negative publicity about its nefarious activities by putting a spin on it. They claim they are champions of small business by supplying them with all this data, and those small businesses will die if they don’t get this data.

What Facebook doesn’t mention is the over $20 billion they made in 2020 alone by selling our data to these small businesses.

Here’s a thought for Facebook. Share some of those billions with the users whose data you sold to make that money.

Signal

The contrast between how much data Facebook collects versus how much Signal collects is an eye-opener. Signal only requires you to share your phone number. So if a hacker breaks into their system, he won’t get your name or where you live or what you do because Signal does not that info. Compare this with the tons of data an advertiser gets about you from Facebook, and you can see why Signal’s ‘data minimization’ appeals to privacy-conscious folks.

Signal is run by the non-profit Signal Foundation. The app uses open-source software and is free with no strings attached. Your data will not be sold and the app does not have ads. It’s funded by former WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton who put in $50 million of the billion or so he got from selling WhatsApp to Facebook.

Acton left Facebook because he strongly disagreed with the direction Zuckerberg had taken WhatsApp. He must have felt he owed the world a safer option. Signal is designed to run on the ‘donation’ model and has is a very small organization. Acton says that if users donate just $1 a year, Signal should be viable, provided Signal gets a certain minimum number of users.

That safety is Signal’s biggest advantage. Your chats are encrypted end-to-end and stay on your device. This means your data can be viewed only on one device, and nowhere else, including the Signal servers.

This also means your data can’t be backed up online and will disappear if you lose your device. This is a major advantage for people who value security over convenience. But a deal-breaker for those who value convenience over security. It’s one reason I have a soft corner for the Telegram app.

Telegram

If you don’t want to share your phone number, then Telegram is the app for you. It collects your phone number to set up the app. Once that’s done, you can hide your number from all other Telegram users and just go by your username.

One reason Telegram has over 500 million users is because it’s like a supercharged version of WhatsApp. Its impressive feature list is what attracts power users to Telegram. These include advanced video-editing, setting the messaging system to run via proxy servers for security, allowing group admins to slow down messages of group members (helpful when people start ranting and shooting off tons of messages), running polls (like Twitter), and the handy ‘saved messages’ feature which lets you save all your important messages in the cloud for access anywhere on any device. You can even set reminders in it.

Telegram can do all that WhatsApp can do, and then some. You can easily transfer large files, up to 1.5GB in size, create channels and groups with up to 200,000 users. You can forward files without having to download them, schedule messages, and track the original source of a forwarded message. Just tap on it, and you will be automatically sent back to that group or channel. Besides, using cloud storage has one solid advantage. You can access all your chats from multiple devices like you would with, say with Gmail.

I love a nifty little feature that allows you to correct a message on your recipient’s device after you have sent it. Perfect for those exasperating autocorrect bloopers that I constantly generate while swipe-typing texts.

Telegram’s major disadvantage is it has no end-to-end encryption meaning your messages can be read if anyone hacks into the Telegram server. However, Telegram CEO Pavel Durov states in his blog, “We rely on our own distributed cross-jurisdictional encrypted cloud storage which we believe is much more protected as compared to say Apple or Google.” So Telegram does have some kind of encryption in place.

Telegram has also been involved in an issue of non-consensual porn. Many women have claimed they have found private/revealing photos of themselves circulating on Telegram channels. This has happened without their consent. Telegram claims it's hard to monitor Telegram Groups as they are encrypted. The jury is out on this one.

I do have one other worry with Telegram. They have plans to allow ads in a limited way (without sharing data) in their massive public channels. The idea is to generate money to cover their running expenses. Thankfully, ads will not present in individual chats and private groups. But once Telegram gets a taste of ad dollars, they might start thinking why not try to generate a bit more, and we all know how this story ends. Let’s hope that’s not what happens.

iMessage vs Facebook

The iPhone crowd does have a great messaging option in iMessage, the iPhone’s inbuilt messaging system. It’s among the top messaging apps from a security and feature point of view (iMessage even has its own app store).

The app’s biggest drawback is it’s only available on iPhones. This is a serious issue in India as iPhones constitute only a minuscule 1% of the country’s mobile phone market. Here’s how iMessage compares to WhatsApp when it comes to linking data to you.

This feature that reveals the data collection habits of apps only happened with the launch of iOS 14.3, and explains Signal downloads to shoot up, making it currently the most downloaded app in the AppStore as well as in Google’s Android Playstore.

Conclusion

The only way that India can break the vice-like, monopolistic grip of WhatsApp is to ban it for a short period of say, one month. This will other messaging apps to present themselves to Indian users, educate them on privacy, and make a strong case for choosing their app to WhatsApp. Monopolies are never good for any economy, whichever you look at it. And I would say this is a case where the ends justify the means.

I do hope the Indian government’s tech wizards arrive at this same solution.

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