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Do I really need to leave Whatsapp!?

On the 6th of January, Whatsapp updated its privacy policy. This sent a shock wave that resounded well beyond the Silicon Valley’s borders. In this article, we try to answer the question we all asked ourselves: Do I really need to leave Whatsapp!?

What can they do with my data?

As we’ve heard 20 times by now, Whatsapp does not collect any deeply private data about me. They can’t access my messages, which are safely encrypted from anyone but my smartphone. They do not keep track of my geolocation, although they know which IP I’m connected from.

What they do know is basically which device I’m using, what have I bought via the app and who I’m interacting with.

What can they do with that?

The truth is that nobody can really answer that question precisely. Knowing which pieces of data are responsible for what marketing magic down the line is a puzzle even the best data-scientists at Facebook would struggle to answer.

What we do know is that it makes it easier to “profile you”, that is to say predict who you are and what you want, so as to tweak their recommendation algorithms both for ads and content.

The positive side of this is that Facebook offers a more engaging experience. Facebook becomes better at showing you content that makes you interact with others via their services and those of their partners. They’ll show you ads that you like, or content that you either love or hate, and you’ll react to it, having social interactions with people and companies in the process.

The downside of it is that they become better at monetizing you. They can skew your information pipeline in a way that makes you more susceptible to being biased. They can make you spend more time or money on things that you would be better off without. It can generally make you more addicted to their apps.

The thing is… you’ll keep using Whatsapp

Tens of millions of users have installed Signal and Telegram over the past few weeks, so much so that it caused outages on their side. If you are reading this line, chances are you’re one of them.

Now the relevant question to ask yourself is: When is it that you will uninstall Whatsapp?

The answer to that question is not in this web. Let me explain it a bit.

Whatsapp has more than 2 billion daily active users. Let’s take a very unlikely hypothesis of 50 million users caring enough about this privacy policy update to uninstall Whatsapp and migrate ALL of their conversations on Signal. That’s 2.5% of Whatsapp’s user base. That means 97.5% of us will stay put, having our conversations on Whatsapp. And because 97.5% of conversations, especially group conversations are on Whatsapp, most Signal newscomers will stay on Whatsapp because of their work group, their family group or the ones on which they were planning their next holidays.

That’s called the network effect, that’s what makes Whatsapp so valuable to Facebook, and that’s why, even if it is a very bad PR move, they know they won’t lose you or their market dominance anytime soon. They are as close as it gets to being a monopoly.

Can we do something about it?

Of course we can! We need to stop storing our private data into private companies. That turns the biggest market player on the web into monopolies.

To work around the problem, our data needs to be stored outside of private companies so that several web players can access it, whereas today, only the biggest player can, only Whatsapp is hosting your family group.

Solid France is an association working on and promoting a new architecture for the web, collaborating with the W3C and the inventor of the web Tim Berners-Lee.