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Companies accessing your data can surprise in ways you don’t expect: Signal’s Acton

Brian Acton, executive chairman of Signal Foundation, said that data protection and privacy were at the core of Signal’s philosophy.

January 13, 2021 / 11:15 AM IST
Brian Acton (Image: Reuters)

Brian Acton (Image: Reuters)

Facebook-backed messaging platform WhatsApp’s ‘take it, or leave it’ privacy policy and terms of service haven’t gone too well with the users. This list includes the likes of Tesla CEO and now the richest man in the world, Elon Musk who tweeted, "Use Signal" – an encrypted messaging app.

Founded in 2014, Signal is an end-to-end encrypted messaging app developed under the Signal Foundation.

A few months after an acrimonious parting of ways with Facebook in 2017, Brian Acton, the founder of WhatsApp, had invested $50 million in Signal and turned it into a foundation.

Unlike other messaging apps, Signal depends on grants and donations for running its operations.

WhatsApp's latest privacy policy has once again stirred up the debate on consumer privacy. In an interview with CNBC-TV18, Brian Acton, executive chairman of Signal Foundation, said that data protection and privacy were at the core of Signal’s philosophy.


“When you have these relationships with companies where they may have access to your data, they can surprise you in ways that you really don't expect,” he told Megha Vishwanath.

“Sometimes you are happy and you are delighted and sometimes it just feels downright creepy. Personally, I don't think that that's how I would like to operate my business. I would like to operate with more straightforward candour and transparency,” he said.

Following is the edited transcript of the full interview with Brian Acton:

Q: According to data analytics firm Sensor Tower, starting from January 1 to 9, Signal has generated 1.8 million downloads in India, while total downloads are up by 14 percent week on week. An endorsement from Elon Musk, will you credit that as the biggest factor for the recent surge you have been seeing?

A: Certainly after that tweet we saw a considerable upswing in terms of downloads and interest in Signal.

We are extraordinarily grateful to Elon Musk, Anand Mahindra. There have been some great names that have been tweeting about us and using our product.


Q: How long will this momentum continue? This is reaction-based, most users of WhatsApp think that they are being arm-twisted into sharing their data with Facebook. Do you see mass adoption of applications like Signal turning into reality, given the comfort and familiarity that users have with apps like WhatsApp?

A: It is important for people that they are presented with alternatives. What Signal does is, present a privacy-first and privacy-centric alternative to other messengers that are out there.


Q: Speaking of WhatsApp, Facebook clearly has a very different position than what you stand for right now with Signal. But if I may dial back a little, while I understand that you had a major fallout with Mark Zuckerberg's vision for the app that you built -- what was your idea of WhatsApp in the long run? How did you see the application maturing and more importantly sustaining itself?

A: The thing that people don't know or understand is that WhatsApp was quite self-sufficient and independent on its own and that is because we had a simple fee model that was 99 cents per year. That generated enough revenue and it was substantial enough that we could own and operate the service quite well and grow it quite considerably before Facebook came along and bought it.

Again it goes back to alternatives. Of course, Facebook has a specific agenda in how they want WhatsApp to evolve and monetize and generate revenue for Facebook. They make the decisions that they make based on their excellence around advertising, their excellence around building business relationships. That wasn't really what I was interested in.

I was interested in making communications safe, secure, reliable, easy and convenient.


Q: You are talking about the 99 cents plan, which was only on iOS devices. Whereas in a region like India, majority of users are on the Android application for whom WhatsApp was free and continues to remain a free platform. Are you saying that the monetization plan that you had put in place when you started out was enough to take it along over the years?

A: Absolutely. Believe it or not, if you are smart, you are engineering, you are efficient and control your costs, it actually doesn't cost as much as people think. The 99 cent plan that we had in place was enough to help us grow our business and cover our costs.


Q: What about WhatsApp's new 'take it or leave it' policy or its further integration with Facebook; concerns you the most, as of today?

A: I think that what's quite interesting is this new privacy policy in terms of service, it's actually kind of complicated. And to really understand it, you have to sort of read it quite carefully, so that you can understand that Facebook's trying to thread a very specific needle around privacy and monetization. That's probably what I don't like the most, it's a very slippery slope and people often times can misstep and do it wrong.

In the Signal scenario, we don't have those problems. With Signal people just download the app, the privacy policy is very understandable and it's very straightforward. I mean, you don't have to worry, you don't have to think twice about 'how is my data being used?.'


Q: As I said that people are clearly talking about privacy, it's becoming a part of their mainstream conversations, family groups are talking about privacy, they are talking about alternate apps, like Signal. My mother is calling me to ask what Signal is and if she should download and transition to the application or not. Having said that, many people are still asking, why should I be really concerned about my privacy or my data being shared? I have all these applications on my phone already. They have all the data that they could already probably extract, what would your response be to those who are on the fence who think that their data is not as important or what is a giant going to do by reading or tapping into their WhatsApp analytics?

A: I try to operate with the principle of least surprise. When, when you have these relationships with companies where they may have access to your data, they can surprise you in ways that you really don't expect.

Sometimes you are happy and you are delighted and sometimes it just feels downright creepy. Personally, I don't think that that's how I would like to operate my business. I would like to operate with more straightforward candour and transparency.

With Signal, there's no question as to how your data is being used. You own your data, we don't have access to it, and it's simple.


Q: So, you own your own data that has been the goal and pretty much the tagline for Signal ever since you started out. But besides that Signal is operating as a non-profit, which keeps things simple for you and the team. Unlike other applications out there, Signal has no pressure of making any money or paying off investors. In fact, the USD 50 million that you bet on Signal came directly from your own funds. However, I want to pick up something that you had published in the blog when you made this announcement - you posted back then, that when you decided to bet on Signal, you also wanted to make Signal Foundation, financially self-sustaining. How do you plan on doing that?

A: I think we continue to explore what we can do with Signal in terms of data privacy, information security. Ideally, I would love to expand beyond messaging in the long term.

Right now, what's important to us is to make sure that we have a rock-solid flagship product. Donations - I think are our primary vehicle. The more you build something that people use every day that they need every day, the more likely you are to get a donation.

If you look at a service like Wikipedia, where, as it stands today, Wikipedia generates a surplus of donations. You are in a much better position to survive and thrive into the long term when you can start to build a long-term endowment and a long-term savings of funds that protect you from economic cycles and allow your organization and your foundation to survive in perpetuity.


Q: So grants and donations, would that be the long term plan as well or do you have an alternate monetization plan? Maybe turning Signal into a freemium offering at some point, is that on the cards at all?

A: I think it's undecided. As we look into the future, we don't know how fast we will grow, and how well we can control our costs. But as it stands, today, we are committed to offering the service as freely as possible. I don't like to really talk about freemium models, because I want to focus right now on donations, grants, those types of things.

We have had some extraordinary, generous donors through the years already. We continue to earn their trust, and we continue to earn their dollars. And I think that's the right relationship to have with your donors.


Q: What would help you to make Signal more mainstream to create the sort of comfort that people find in applications like Facebook Messenger, like WhatsApp? Of course, you are seeing the momentum and the surge in downloads, but how do you plan on converting those downloads into daily active usage?

A: That's a long process of continuous improvement. You take the product and you incorporate the feedback of the people that use it. We have been really delighted to see such a surge in India, because India represents a market that's uniquely diverse, and very rich. We get some fantastic suggestions of improvements, we also get fantastic feedback in terms of it works or it doesn't work in these cases. So we learn from it. This is what I did with WhatsApp and this is what I am doing with Signal.


Q: The fact that these messages are end-to-end encrypted and you talk about how you want to make Signal better... If I can understand the process and go deeper in that - you are not able to access the chats that are on Signal, you don't know the kind of analytics, you are not collecting that sort of data, then how exactly are you working to understand what users want beyond the immediate feedback that you are getting to make Signal better, to make Signal more relevant for the users who are signing in today?

A: It does mean that we have a harder time with getting quantitative analytical data. Sometimes we have to rely on our own intuition. We rely on the feedback of our users through our support channels and reviews. And then we also do research. Research in various markets, including the Indian market, we have done research in India specifically, that helps inform us and make sure that we are building a global product and a global first product.


Q: Do you believe you have a one-up over your other current competitor at this point, Telegram?

A: Telegram is a different beast. It's a different type of organization.


Q: What makes it different?

A: We are certainly aware of Telegram, we are certainly aware of all the messengers out there. I think we all look over each other's shoulders and see what's good and bad about them. I am extraordinarily proud of the team that's building Signal and our privacy-first policy, it's unduplicated by any other messenger out there.


Q: At least a tweet that you guys put out on January 9th showed that you were topping the charts when it comes to applications in India. However, I would want to, coax you a little on that question and understand what makes Signal different from Telegram and why should users switch to Signal because that's one of the big dilemmas that users are facing at this point. I don't want to use WhatsApp, should I jump onto Signal or should I jump onto Telegram? So what would your pitch be to them?

A: I think that Telegram has not been extremely clear in terms of what its monetization strategies are going to be. They experimented with Bitcoin-like cryptocurrency, but then they had to pull back on that idea. Recently, we have been hearing about other forays into potential advertising. So I think Telegram hasn't figured out their sustainability model.

Telegram is a business, very much like WhatsApp is a business or any other messenger product. So I think there's a little bit more uncertainty. Kudos to Telegram in what they have accomplished, and kudos to WhatsApp in what they have accomplished, it's competitive.


Q: Speaking particularly of India, what is Signal's long-term plan, I know you are operating with a very frugal team. And that has been the philosophy from the get-go. But considering the kind of surge in traffic that you are witnessing right now, you will have to do something, to be able to manage this incoming traffic.

A: We look at India as a leader in the internet space, and we look at India to help guide us in terms of making our product better. So in terms of raising our engagement, potentially spending more time in India, and looking at long term, how we can leverage people in India, is something that we talk about all the time.


Q: Moving away from Signal - out of sheer curiosity, when you walked away from Facebook, that move did cost you USD 850 million, would you say that it was one of the boldest decisions that you had taken as an entrepreneur and as a tech professional?

A: I think different people might have different opinions. It certainly does feel bold. For me, it was a very deliberate decision and a very straightforward decision. I came to the conclusion that I did not want to be at Facebook and WhatsApp anymore. And there was no amount of money that would necessarily make me stay. So it was time for me to go and I did, which I am glad that I did.


Q: Money clearly wasn't a factor that would hold you back. But as an individual, what was your biggest fear when you decided to move on back then?

A: I think every entrepreneur has a small degree of fear of failure. We, over the last two years, have been pushing and working and pushing and working every day to make Signal better. This recognition is unprecedented for us. Even in my time at WhatsApp, WhatsApp never achieved levels like we are seeing in the last couple days, and it's exciting.


Q: Fear of failure, that is something that I think, as you said, every entrepreneur holds on to, and considering the validation and the love that you are getting, when it comes to Signal, do you still hold on to that fear? Does that still exist somewhere in the back of your mind- fear of failure?

A: Absolutely. You can't become complacent especially in technology. There's a competition that's always nipping at you. Frankly, we still have a lot of work to do. We are working very hard to continue to make Signal the product that you want to use for your messaging and to protect your communications.


Q: If you were to do it all again, what would you do differently?

A: We can never have enough people in hiring in building an organization. I always think that we should have grown our organization faster. It's just extraordinarily hard to do. So maybe I might prioritize hiring even more. But it's hard to play, to look back and answer those types of questions because you never get to do things twice.


Q: What is your biggest mission now with Signal? Are there some metrics or some targets that you have set in place globally?

A: I think we continue to think about growing. Our growth rate certainly has been unprecedented. But long term, I would love to see Signal become a billion-user product. I would love to see 100-200 million Indian people using our product.

What's important is, that we have to earn that, you can't just have a ton of people download the app today, and then stop using it tomorrow. We have to earn your trust and we have to delight you in a product experience and that's what we are set out to do.


Q: In 2018, you created quite a stir when you tweeted out saying with this hashtag 'delete Facebook', it went viral, it shocked your former employer, it shocked your colleagues and it kind of went with the theme of Brian Acton's bold decisions and moves. Do you still stand by that statement?

A: That was a statement that I made that was largely a reflection of my choice. It was a choice I made because of things that were happening at that time. I encourage people to be critical, thoughtful about the choices that they make and the services that they use. It's good to know who uses your data and how they use your data, it's good to be educated about the activities. So make those choices, make those informed and educated choices in every service that you use online.

Source: CNBC-TV18
first published: Jan 13, 2021 11:15 am

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