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‘If You Build for India, You Build for the World’: Signal Co-Founder Brian Acton on WhatsApp and Future of Private Messaging

‘If you start from a position of no information, you’re automatically protecting people’s privacy.’

‘If You Build for India, You Build for the World’: Signal Co-Founder Brian Acton on WhatsApp and Future of Private Messaging

Photo Credit: Signal co-founder Brian Acton, who also co-founded WhatsApp, on the difference in privacy in the two apps

  • Signal's Brian Acton speaks to NDTV about the importance of privacy
  • He was also the co-founder of WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014
  • He quit Facebook reportedly over a dispute on WhatsApp's monetisation

Signal's meteoric rise is a direct consequence of a larger discussion about online privacy or the blatant disregard for it. It's fuelled this time by a policy update from WhatsApp — one of the controversial changes many its users have had to consent to since Facebook took over in 2014 — that links the data of WhatsApp users to Facebook's other products and services. But this one, in particular, has managed to blow up sufficiently well to send users searching for privacy-focused messaging alternatives.

Signal, like Telegram, has come up as a viable option. And thanks to the endorsement it has got from the likes of Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Paytm CEO Vijay Shekhar Sharma, but also noted whistleblower Edward Snowden, the private-messaging app is on its way to hitting a previously unfathomable milestone of 1 million daily downloads. And despite WhatsApp issuing multiple clarifications that say that the update does not affect the data of regular users, Signal and Telegram are seeing huge numbers of new users.

Signal is run by a non-profit and its co-founder, Brian Acton was also one of the founders of WhatsApp. Acton and Jan Koum sold WhatsApp to Facebook in 2014. In 2017, Acton quit the company — at the time, he said it was over a dispute with Facebook regarding the monetisation of WhatsApp.

Now, in an interview with NDTV, Acton talked about Signal's India plans, its donation-only business model, and what makes it different from WhatsApp.

NDTV: Signal has been topping the App Store charts globally. How is Signal scaling up to match the growth, and at what speed? 

Brian Acton: We are basically all hands on deck, we've been losing a fair amount of sleep but you know we've been scaling up our servers to make sure that we have enough capacity for all the users that want to use our app and so far we've been able to manage the load. Obviously, I have a lot of experience doing this, I've been in the industry quite a while. 

And you know we were excited because the Indian country and people have really signed up quite considerably and it's been exciting to see so many people and get so much feedback and to already get tonnes of feature requests and things like that. I know that people are really excited to try out Signal and explore it and it's a great opportunity for us  

Signal is now being compared to WhatsApp, both products founded by you, are competing against each other. How do you feel about that? What do you think are the key features where Signal scores over Whatsapp? 

I think where Signal absolutely scores above WhatsApp is in the privacy category. You know you see it in the privacy label on the iPhone app placed in the App Store and you see it in sort of how we build our product. 

We have privacy features, disappearing messages, things like that. Everything is encrypted, including your metadata you know we lead and win on privacy. 

Of course, you know, WhatsApp has 400 million users in India. It's a big market, there's a lot of excitement around WhatsApp in people's day to day lives and we were just grateful for the opportunity to show the product to the people of India, and to tell them that there's alternatives that help them learn about online privacy, digital privacy, help make sure that they make the right choices and securing their communications in their privacy. 

WhatsApp has incredible momentum in India with 340 million users. Meanwhile, digital literacy and specifically data literacy is a challenge. How do you plan to convey Signal's privacy-first USP in a market where people prefer convenience. 

I think a lot of it just comes from a lot of the materials that we present to people. You know, if you look at Signal, it is called the private Messenger in our store listings. Privacy is outlined and highlighted in a lot of places as you use the app. 

I think it comes through pretty easily that it is privacy first and it's why people were starting to have that conversation of, like well, should I use Signal or should I use WhatsApp or something else, and I'm glad people are having these conversations, and you know they're having them with their parents and they're having them with their children and that's actually helping digital literacy the education here is extraordinarily important, and I'm glad that that Signal can be a part of that. 

You did leave Facebook because of your disapproval with how the company intended to use data from WhatsApp. Ethical dilemma aside, targeted advertising can help surface more relevant information. What's your stance on making data sharing opt-in versus not sharing data at all? 

Ans: I think that you know when you build systems that are opt-in, they often times are quickly switched to opt-out and a slippery slope of you know what data do I collect, what data do I not collect. 

And then people start to get into a position where they're completely surprised it's like oh when I opted-in I didn't realize I was giving you this other information. If you start from a position of, you know, we have no information, you're automatically protecting people's privacy.

You're automatically keeping them safe and keeping them secure and that's the type of tool in utility and communication that I want to be able to protect. You know, there are, of course, alternatives, and people will explore those alternatives and try those alternatives and make decisions for themselves, but I always want to make sure that there's a strong safety net that protects your privacy that you can turn to and have available at all times and that is Signal. 

There are obvious data privacy concerns with Facebook, but it has enabled simpler communications between businesses and users like payments integration. Does Signal's privacy stance allow it to reach such ecosystem integration? 

I think that it's really early to tell right now. We're focused really on just sort of protecting and promoting communication. WhatsApp is taking on a lot of other things and other activities, especially in the Indian market, and I don't feel the need to necessarily try to do that in direct competition.

You know I'm a big fan of Paytm. I think that it's a great product and people, love Paytm, as much as they love WhatsApp or they will grow to love Signal. I don't think you have to do everything in your app. I think what's important is to identify what's your critical functionality and to do it really well 

Instant messaging apps have often been used to coordinate illegal acts. Your Co-founder Moxie Marlinspike has gone on the record to say that law enforcement should be hard. Now, with Signal's world-class encryption this becomes harder still. What is Signal's stance on co-operating with law enforcement/ governments of countries and to what extent? 

You know, what I think, what's important is the law. The law is there not only there to protect, it allows to protect its citizens. So you know, Signal can be there to help protect citizens from things like abuse of power. I think it's a very strong sort of safety that we can offer our users. 

In terms of law enforcement, I think that you know it should be specific and it should be targeted. Law enforcement should be encouraged to be very specific about what they're going after and you have the tools and capabilities to do that more often than you know. 

And Signal helps to protect people from those abuses where people go abroad or go wide 

At its inception, you invested $50 million in Signal, and the foundation operates as a non-profit. Now, with the increasing amount of interest and growth in downloads, what is the long term business plan to ensure Signal can scale up and sustain itself? 

We've gone back and forth on a variety of business plans and we really like the non-profit structure and we really like the, you know, sort of donations and grants business model. Now you know that's work, of course, to make sure that you have donors large donors, have small donors, people give you and there's a spectrum of donors. 

Wikipedia is a great example of a non-profit technology organization that's able to provide a fantastic service that's free for all, and that's what we are working towards. Part of that's growing the users and making sure that we have enough donors to work with and then, of course, giving them, you know, a reasonable tool to give us a donation if they prefer. 

And then we also cultivate large donors and that's how we will sustain ourselves in the long term.

There's no other plan to actually get another investment. It has to be a donation model and what I want to do is I want to earn people's donations. That's the right relationship. I want to build features and capabilities and build a delightful product that earned your donation. I want you to voluntarily want to give us money not feel like oh I have to pay for it because you know I have to pay for it 

Let's talk about future planning... Signal has so far relied on phone numbers that are still tied to a user's identity, are there any plans to introduce user ids that will let a user to be completely private? 

I think that we will explore these ideas. We give them a really good consideration because they give you another layer of privacy protection and that's what drives us. 

It's one of the features that's most frequently requested, of course, as well and so if we build it and when we build, we would do it in a privacy preserving way at all times. 

Lastly,  What are your plans for India and to grow here? Will you expand language support for great access, and introduce any unique features for the region?

Certainly the languages, I mean, you know what's wonderful about India is such a diverse culture. We already support, I think, 12 different languages ranging from Hindi, of course, to Urdu and everything else. 

We have gotten an influx of feature requests from India so I view it as a collaboration. I have a very very good friend and colleague who lives in Erode, in Tamil Nadu and I talk to him every day. He's telling me what's going on, it helps me understand sort of what the Indian market is like. What's necessary. He's giving me product ideas, I think that's the best way to build a product for India and what's really awesome is India is such a strong representation of the world that if you build for India you build for the world. 

Have you ever visited India? When can we expect you here? 

Yes, absolutely. I've been there twice. All over Bangalore, Mumbai, Delhi, other places. A place I've yet to visit is the Taj Mahal, that's definitely one I want to do. But I also want to go back to Mumbai and Bangalore as well.  


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