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Privacy is not a fad and, for people who value it, Signal represents a viable alternative: Brian Acton

People want to choose who owns their data instead of being told their only option is to comply, says Brian Acton, co-founder of the Signal Foundation, which runs the messaging platform. Signal, he said, has no ads, no trackers, no data. It is a non-profit whose motivation is to protect people and help maintain their privacy. And, he emphasises, it will never be acquired by a major tech company

January 19, 2021 / 12:19 PM IST

When Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp announced changes in its privacy policy on January 6, 2021, another messaging app, Signal, was the biggest gainer. Downloads of the app surged as people around the world, including India, looked for alternatives.

Indeed, Signal topped WhatsApp in terms of the number of downloads in the days following the policy change announcement.

Brian Acton, Executive Chairman of the Signal Foundation, which runs the messaging platform, says that Privacy is not a fad and, for people who value it, Signal represents a viable alternative. Acton cofounded the foundation with Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of the Signal app.

At the heart of the claim that Signal is a viable alternative, Acton says, is a belief that people value privacy enough to sustain it, and that can drive an alternative to ad-based business models. The messenger is free to use and is currently run on grants and donations.

Acton, also the co-founder of WhatsApp, exited Facebook in 2017 due to disagreements over WhatsApp’s monetisation.

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Signal, Acton told Moneycontrol in an email interview, can never be acquired by major tech companies. Read on to find out why.

What were your first thoughts when you saw a sudden surge in downloads of Signal over the last few days?

It is so encouraging to see the massive outpouring of support from all over the world, with India leading the way. The tweets from thousands of new Signal users, with big voices like Anand Mahindra among them, are just really amazing. The people of India completely exceeded any and all of our expectations. We are flattered and honoured to be able to have the opportunity to be able to serve the people of India.

 

Did you expect this to happen during the three years when you were building Signal?

We expected growth, but nobody could have predicted such a huge wave of new people switching to Signal. Even when I was at WhatsApp we never saw something like this before. It really is special, what is happening around the world.

As Signal gains volume, do you have a monetisation plan in place? Will donations alone be sustainable? With WhatsApp, there was a $1 per year plan to use the app. Will that work with Signal?

Signal is an independent nonprofit, and the team at Signal is committed to the mission of developing open source privacy technology that protects free expression and enables secure global communication.

Signal is exclusively supported by grants and donations. We believe that millions of people value privacy enough to sustain it, and we’re here to demonstrate that there is an alternative to the ad-based business models that exploit user privacy.

We are not tied to any major tech companies, and can never be acquired by one either.

Though users might now be looking for alternatives, do you see this momentum lasting? WhatsApp is familiar and privacy might be less of a concern, if it goes all out on clarifications as it has begun doing recently…

Privacy is not a fad. People have always cared about privacy, and this giant movement that has been happening for the past week is proof. When presented with a viable choice, people choose to protect their privacy. They want to choose who owns their data instead of being told their only option is to comply.

When speaking about India, we have become their most popular app for a reason. It’s because we share their sentiment around wanting better privacy. Signal doesn’t want to know who you message, the content of your images, searches, group details, or what you buy.

 Would you attribute this surge only to WhatsApp’s privacy policy update or could there be more underlying reasons?

I cannot deny the fact that the WhatsApp policy changes have compelled people to think about data privacy more seriously, leading them to Signal. The whole world seems to realise that Facebook is not building apps for them, Facebook is building apps for their data. And all it took was this one policy change being sent out to mobilise everyone around the world to make a change for privacy.

People are realising that the privacy they enjoy in their offline life can only be found online in very-privacy-focussed apps like Signal.

How many users does Signal have now and which countries are they are from?

Well, you know, I think it's fair to say that we've seen record-breaking growth. We don't necessarily talk about our user numbers publicly. What is important to understand is that Signal is topping the charts on the iOS App store in over 70 countries and the Android App Store in over 50 countries. We have been the most popular app in India since Wednesday. Earlier today, we crossed 50 million downloads on Android — India has been the leader in driving this for us.

 With Signal, what are you trying to do differently?

No ads, no trackers, no data. When a company is for profit, their motivations strive towards gaining more profit. Signal is an independent nonprofit, and our motivation is to protect people and help maintain their privacy.

Do you have a specific plan for Signal’s growth and also sustaining the momentum you are seeing now? How are you managing the surge?

The Signal service was built to scale, and the number of people on Signal has been growing for years. The recent influx just accelerated what we were already planning on doing. As the graph went vertical, we scaled horizontally.

How big is Signal's team? Are there any plans to ramp up operations?

Our team is less than 50 people, but we are still growing and are always on the lookout for talent.  It’s safe to say that because of this record growth, we’re even more interested in finding the right people who want to help us keep making private communication simple.

Can you give us some indication on where India stands in all this?

India is a country that has always been ahead of the curve at adopting the best technology, and it’s exciting to see it happening again. We are all committed to living up to the high standards that people in India have come to expect. The record growth we are seeing around the world is no doubt due to India leading the way. We believe that if we build it right for India, we build it right for the world.

It is also encouraging to read headlines saying Paytm founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma, PhonePe co-founder Sameer Nigam and Cred Founder Kunal Shah are also Signal supporters.
Swathi Moorthy
first published: Jan 19, 2021 12:19 pm

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